Shrewd and combative Brooklyn native who headed the nation’s largest municipal employees’ union for two decades and played a pivotal role in saving New York City from bankruptcy in 1975. As executive director of District Council 37 in New York, Mr. Gotbaum was one of the nation’s most prominent union leaders during a tumultuous time in the history of organized labor.
In 1965, when Mr. Gotbaum first took the helm of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, it had 36,000 members. By 1975, thanks to his drive and organizing expertise, it was a powerhouse with more than 110,000 members. An amalgam of 60 separate union locals, it represented the city’s secretaries, zookeepers, social workers, accountants, sewage treatment workers, computer programmers and school lunch aides.
Victor Harry Gotbaum was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Sept. 5, 1921, to Harry Gotbaum and the former Mollie Bernstein. Mr. Gotbaum graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, and at 19 he took a job at an uncle’s printing shop. In August 1943 he married Sarah Cohen, a social worker who had been his childhood sweetheart. They had four children and for many years lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., while Mr. Gotbaum kept an apartment in New York City. They divorced in 1975.
In 1977 he married Betsy Flower, who had been Mayor Lindsay’s executive assistant for education when they met. Betsy Gotbaum was the city’s public advocate from 2002 to 2010.
Mr. Gotbaum graduated from Brooklyn College in 1948, having majored in political science. In 1950, he obtained a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and was hired to lecture in political science at Brooklyn College.
From 1957 to 1964, he headed the Chicago district council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Then it was on to New York, where in 1965 he was appointed executive director of District Council 37.
After retiring from District Council 37 in 1986, at age 65, he founded the Center for Labor-Management Policy at the City University of New York. He was later director of the National Center for Collective Bargaining at Baruch College.
In 1993, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed him to the city’s Board of Education.
Besides Ms. Gotbaum, he is survived by his sons, Joshua, Irving and Noah; a daughter, Rachel Gotbaum; a stepdaughter, Katherin Barr Hogen; eight grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.
In 2007, in a case that drew national attention, Mr. Gotbaum’s daughter-in-law Carol A. Gotbaum, Noah’s wife, died in police custody at a Phoenix airport on her way to an alcoholism treatment program. She had been arrested on disorderly conduct charges after arguing with airline workers about a missed flight. An autopsy found that she had accidentally strangled herself with her shackles.