Barry Feinstein, Once a Labor Union Power in New York, Dies at 87

Barry Feinstein, the leader of a small New York City Teamsters local who rose to the pinnacles of labor and political power in the city and the state representing municipal workers over 25 years, but was toppled by corruption charges and banished from his union for life, died on Thursday in Allendale, N.J. He was 87.

The death, at a nursing home, was confirmed by his son Steven.

In the annals of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the stain of corruption runs wide and deep: murders, assassinations, beatings, bombings, kickbacks for sweetheart contracts, looted pension funds, and the notorious 1975 disappearance of the union’s mob-affiliated president, Jimmy Hoffa, whose body was never found.

In that perspective, the case against Mr. Feinstein was small potatoes. He was not even charged with a crime. A court-appointed federal investigator monitoring the Teamsters because of its tainted history accused Mr. Feinstein in a civil proceeding of misusing some $500,000 in union funds to rent a Manhattan penthouse, pay for family trips abroad and take an interest-free loan.

In a 1993 plea bargain, Mr. Feinstein did not admit or deny the charges. In exchange for having the case dropped, he agreed to resign his $200,000-a-year union job, accepted banishment for life from all Teamster posts and agreed to repay $104,000 of the money he took. He was allowed to keep his pension, and avoided the stigma of being found guilty of administrative law embezzlement charges.

Mr. Feinstein, in a 2020 interview for this obituary, vehemently denied wrongdoing. He insisted that the allegations against him had been made without evidence by Justice Department officials intent on destroying his rising influence in the municipal union movement. “Nothing was ever proved in court — I wasn’t even indicted,” he said by telephone from his home at the time in Delray Beach, Fla.

In retrospect, the rise and fall of Mr. Feinstein could have been scripted for Off Broadway. He grew up in a family close to union and Democratic leaders. Mayor William O’Dwyer attended his bar mitzvah and gave him a $20 bill. Mayor Abraham D. Beame, in a City Hall meeting during the 1975 fiscal crisis, pinched his cheek, as he had done for years, and asked about the health of his mother.

“I said, ‘Abe, you can’t do that anymore,’” Mr. Feinstein recalled.

His father, Henry Feinstein, was the postwar executive director of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest labor coalition in New York City. He played poker with Abe Beame and the old Tammany Hall boss Carmine G. DeSapio. In a dispute with national union leaders over municipal workers, he founded Teamsters Local 237 in 1953.

Barry became the local’s president in 1967. It was a relatively small base for an ambitious young labor leader. Out of a municipal work force of about 200,000, he represented 23,000 Housing Authority and hospital workers, school guards, bridge tenders and city lawyers.

Mr. Feinstein, center, at a news conference in 1985. With him, from left, were Harold Fisher, a lawyer representing Housing Authority workers, and Jack Bigel, a union adviser. Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

But he was a lawyer and a shrewd negotiator, a Democrat who befriended Republicans and embraced a wide range of political and labor leaders. His union hall speeches were streams of tough talk sprinkled with obscenities, but friends said he had an earnest, almost sweet, personality.

Mr. Feinstein first received wide public attention in 1971 when he ordered his bridge-tending members to lock open 26 city drawbridges, causing widespread traffic snarls. Simultaneously, members of District Council 37 shut down most sewage treatment plants, dumping a billion gallons of raw sewage into the city’s waterways.

These technically illegal actions by public employees, staged to protest stalled state legislation on pensions for city workers, were called off after two days. Mr. Feinstein was indicted for his role, but the charges were dismissed.

His union practically ran itself, giving him time and latitude to get into the politics of organized labor. He acted as an intermediary for other union leaders in critical labor negotiations with the city and state. Bargains were made, strikes were frequently averted, and all sides were grateful. By degrees, he began to accumulate power in Albany and New York.

He became a leader in municipal collective bargaining. Besides Local 237, he led a regional Teamsters group of 150,000 workers in the city, on Long Island and in the northern suburbs. In Albany, he became the municipal union movement’s chief lobbyist and chairman of the Public Employee Conference, representing 1.1 million government workers. He vacationed with Mel Miller, the Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly.

In the city’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, Mr. Feinstein, Albert Shanker, of the United Federation of Teachers, and Victor Gotbaum, executive director of District Council 37, worked with Gov. Hugh L. Carey, Mayor Beame and others to stabilize finances after years of deficits that had left New York unable to pay its bills or borrow more money. Service cuts, wage freezes and other measures were taken, and billions in loans from union pension funds helped avert bankruptcy.

Felix G. Rohatyn, chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, the independent state body that monitored budgets and provided oversight for the financial arrangements, called Mr. Feinstein a serious negotiator who cared deeply about the city.

“You could always talk to Barry ultimately about the reality of the situation, and do it privately and dispassionately,” Mr. Rohatyn told The New York Times after the crisis had passed. “Within the limitations of what he felt he had to do in the interests of his membership, I think he was concerned about the welfare of the city.”

Mr. Feinstein, second from left, speaking in 1981 with David N. Dinkins, right, when Mr. Dinkins was a candidate for Manhattan borough president. The others, from left, were the union officials Frank Russo and Victor Gotbaum. Credit…Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

In the 1980s, Mr. Gotbaum’s retirement and Mr. Shanker’s decision to run a national teachers’ union left Mr. Feinstein as the municipal labor movement’s most influential leader. In 1989, he was one of the first labor leaders to back David N. Dinkins as the city’s first Black candidate for mayor, and was credited with a substantial role in his election.

After Mr. Feinstein’s abrupt fall from power in 1993, many business, political and labor leaders described his removal as a significant loss for the city. He had just concluded negotiations with the Dinkins administration for a new multiyear contract for a coalition of 19 civilian unions.

Malcolm McDonald, the chief arbiter in city labor disputes, called Mr. Feinstein “an effective and stabilizing influence” on the entire labor movement. “He has a unique political sense,” he said. “He has the ability to deal at almost all levels. He understands that if you kill the cow, there is no more milk.”

Mr. Feinstein in the early 1970s. His union hall speeches were streams of tough talk sprinkled with obscenities, but friends said he had an earnest, almost sweet, personality.Credit…Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

Barry Lewis Feinstein was born in Brooklyn on March 8, 1935, to Henry and Yvette Feinstein. Barry and his sister, Linda, attended public schools, and he graduated from the Rhodes School in Manhattan, in 1952. After graduating from Hofstra University on Long Island in 1957, he joined his father’s union as a business agent. He worked part-time while attending New York Law School in Manhattan and earned a juris doctor in 1960.

His first marriage, 1960, to Arlene Geller, ended in divorce. In 1982, he married Marguerite Drezin, known as Maggie, who was director of legislation and political education for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She founded and directed the retirement division of Local 237. She died in 1991. In 1993, he and Florence Subin became partners.

In addition to his son Steven, from his first marriage, his survivors include Ms. Subin; another son, Henry, also from his first marriage; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Feinstein, who until recently lived with Ms. Subin in Delray Beach and White Plains, N.Y., served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1989 to 2008 and was a founder and former chairman of the Consortium for Worker Education, a private nonprofit agency that provides training and employment services for dislocated workers.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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