The Chief
July 6, 2001

Bloomberg Blooper Stirs Unions' Wrath

Pits Finest vs. Strongest

By William Van Auken

Republican mayoral hopeful Michael Bloomberg ignited a mini-"battle of the badges" last week by suggesting that Sanitation Workers' jobs are more dangerous than those of cops and firefighters.

Speaking before a breakfast meeting of the West Side Chamber of Commerce, the billionaire candidate declared, I bet you could find statistics that say being a Sanitation Worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman."

No Retention Worries

The comment came in the midst of an extended answer to a question about municipal collective bargaining in which Mr. Bloomberg argued that, despite the rigors of a Sanitation Worker's job, the city is not facing the same difficulties in recruiting and retaining them as it is with cops and Teachers.

"In spite of the great tragedies you read about in the paper, every day these guys are hanging off the back of a truck," he said. "And they deal with medical waste. It's a dangerous job.

"We lose an awful lot of cops, we lose an awful lot of Teachers," he continued, "but we don't lose an awful lot of Sanitation Workers, where arguably it is as dangerous.. Look, that's the marketplace."

Coming barely a week and a half after the tragic Father's Day fire which claimed the lives of three city Firefighters, the Republican candidate's remarks struck a raw nerve.

"He is way off base," a spokesman for the Uniformed Firefighters' Association said. "When Firefighters go to work in the morning, they don't know is they; are going to be coming home." The spokesman, Tom Butler, added, "Maybe someone misadvised him. He should go back to whoever gave him those statistics and ask them to recheck their source."

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch fired back his own response to Mr. Bloomberg's statement, pointing out that 37 cops have died in the line of duty since 1990. "Mayoral candidates, as a rule, are ill-advised to make statements that can be interpreted as disparaging to the enormous contributions of police officers," Mr. Lynch said. He said he had the "utmost respect for the city's Sanitation Workers and the dangers of their jobs."

The UFA has endorsed Democratic hopeful Alan G. Hevesi, the City Comptroller, in the mayoral race, while the PBA has yet to pick a candidate.

A spokesman for the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association said that Mr. Bloomberg's remarks were essentially on the mark and reflect the findings of a 1985 study that the union had used to argue for a 25-year pension for its members.

"When the sanitation union published this study, its motivation was not to detract from the dangers of firefighters' and police officers' jobs, but to show that Sanitation Workers have a dangerous and unhealthy job," said the spokesman, James Grossman. "They don't face the same danger of being mortally wounded on the job that firefighters and police officers have, but in terms of overall health effects, their jobs are worse."

High Injury Rate

Prepared by Dr. Joseph Ciminio, a former city Health Commissioner, the study found that "sanitation men have injury rates and severity rates as a result of injuries that are on average higher than any occupational group." The study cited disabling back injuries, strains, sprains and fractures as well as exposure to severe environmental hazards, including chemical and biological waste.

In a June 28 "Dear Pat" letter addressed to the PBA president, Mr. Bloomberg shifted the blame for his gaffe onto a Daily News reporter, who "was not even at the event and cast my remarks in such an unfortunate context."

The letter called attention to Mr. Bloomberg's financial support for the Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Fund, According to one union official, the financial information mogul has raised and personally contributed approximately $2 million to the charity over the course of a 13-year involvement.

"By no means did I mean to diminish the risks that police officers take on [a] daily basis," he wrote, "I only meant to express that many city workers put their necks on the line for us and that we should remember that when it's time to negotiate." A virtually identical letter was sent to Uniformed Firefighters' Association President Kevin Gallagher.

Indeed, the candidate's clumsily phrased comparison of the relative dangers faced by New York's Finest, Bravest and Strongest came in the midst of his observations on the factors influencing collective bargaining in the city.

Mitigating Remarks

Union officials privately acknowledged that the thrust of Mr.; Bloomberg's remarks appeared to weigh on the side of providing an equitable raise, particularly for cops and Teachers.

The candidate told his Chamber of Commerce audience that police officers "have a very good argument" for putting a substantial wage demand on the table. "They can say, 'you said take back the streets, and we did;' not perfect, but come on, the police delivered over eight years. They say, 'We were promised something if we did it, and we did it. Where's the quid pro quo?'"

The United Federation of Teachers, he said, cannot make a similar case. "Teachers don't have a great argument, because the results haven't been improved," said the candidate. "And I would argue to [UFT President] Randi Weingarten, you help us improve it, and then you can say the same thing the cops can."

He went on, however, to acknowledge that "we are losing too many Teachers to other systems. And I think what you will see is a significant raise probably given by this Mayor, and if not, by the next Mayor."

Ms. Weingarten indicated that she was not inclined to get upset over Mr. Bloomberg's remarks on the campaign trail.

"That would surprise me if he said it that way," she responded when informed about the candidate's counterposing the performance of cops to that of Teachers. "In my conversations with him, he wants performance to be rewarded, but he understands you have to have a competitive base pay."

A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg said that the candidate's remarks were not meant as a criticism of Mayor Giuliani's bargaining strategy - which has so far resulted in a wage offer of 2.5 percent to both the cops and Teachers. "He has no desire to get in the middle of those negotiations," said the spokesman, Edward Skyler.

Another Union Gaffe

Winding up his remarks on collective bargaining, Mr. Bloomberg opined that the NYPD is relatively free of "work rule problems."

 "If you think about the Police Department, the Police Department is non-union," he said. "I think it's the Captain on up, or the Lieutenant on up. But the higher level management, and that's why it's easy to make them responsive."

This came as news to John F. Driscoll, president of the Captains' Endowment Association. "We're a union all the way up to Deputy Chief," he said. "He's obviously not attuned to who has collective bargaining certificates in the City of New York."

The Captains union leader added: "If police are responsive, it's because they're responsible, We have a serious job of protecting the citizens of New York and we take it seriously, from Police Officers up to supervisors."