Richard Cohen's column "Look Who's Killing the N.Y. Daily News" was partly right, but mainly wrong {op-ed, Dec. 4}.

To begin with, he was wrong about the "selfish and corrupt unions" nearly killing the News. The unions have gone the extra mile to keep the News afloat. In 1987 they signed a three-year contract with the paper that included $30 million in concessions. What they got in return was a management pledge -- never fulfilled -- to build a new plant and buy new presses to make the News competitive.

This year, the unions were again eager to work out a contract. Everyone in New York knew it but not, apparently, Richard Cohen.

Second, Cohen's column never mentioned the New York Post. Too bad. It would have made an interesting contrast. Both the Post and the News have had hard times, and both were scheduled to negotiate contracts with the same unions this year.

There the similarity ends: the Post's management was willing to negotiate, and both sides made concessions (for example, unions agreed to share the work through a four-day work week). In the end, they hammered out a contract, and a few weeks ago, Post publisher Peter Kalikow called chief union negotiator George McDonald "labor's man of the year."

Meanwhile, the News management wages a multimillion-dollar war for a union-free environment, even if it results in a Daily News-free environment.

The single biggest failure of Cohen's column was that he missed the largest issue -- the so-called permanent replacement of strikers, less elegantly termed the hiring of scabs and the firing of strikers. It is why the Daily News debacle has come about.

Since the 1930s it's been illegal to fire workers for exercising their right to strike, but the Reagan administration gave new inspiration to an idea as old as slavery. This tactic of permanently replacing strikers threatens the existence of free trade unions and makes a mockery of a right to strike, so most industrialized countries forbid it. The United States is an exception.

The Chicago owners of the News saw an opportunity to break the unions just as they had broken the pressmen's union at the Chicago Tribune. So what went wrong? Maybe they forgot how many New Yorkers depend on their unions to feed their families. Maybe they thought no one would care if they dumped their employees. They got a surprise.

Cohen said, "New York will be the last place to get cynical about unionism." He seems to think that's an insult. I think it's one of the finest compliments to my hometown I've heard in years.

Finally, Cohen said that in the choice of "which side are you on," he chooses the newspaper. That's sad; clearly New Yorkers are on the side of the people, not the paper. -- Thomas Donahue The writer is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.