The Chief
November 16, 2001

Firefighter Leaders Claim Cop Union AWOL at Rally

UFA, PBA Split Over Struggle at Ground Zero

By William Van Auken

At a rally held outside Manhattan Criminal Court November 4, AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarter and other prominent labor leaders joined to condemn the arrests of two firefighter union leaders.

Uniformed Firefighters' Association President Kevin Gallagher and Uniformed Fire Officers' Association President Peter L. Gorman turned themselves in the weekend after a Ground Zero protest that saw scattered clashes between their off-duty members and police officers detailed to the site.

Lynch Not There

Conspicuous by his absence was the leader of the union that represents many of those cops, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch.

Union sources described Mr. Lynch as angered by televised images of police officers being shoved by fire fighters at a November 2 demonstration where several of his members and a larger number of superior officers suffered minor injuries.

But firefighter union leaders charged that Mr. Lynch was "missing in action" at the demonstration, saying that the PBA had promised to participate, They said they held off starting the rally while waiting for police union officials who never showed.

The protest was called against the city's decision to curtail efforts to recover remains from the rubble at the World Trade Center site, where the remains of 21 cops in addition to more than 240 firefighters have yet to be recovered. While the Giuliani administration maintains that the reduction in the number of FDNY and NYPD members assigned to the search for bodies was dictated by safety concerns, the unions have charged that the motives are purely economic. The city, they say, is anxious to appease downtown business interests by speeding up the removal of debris, and is looking to cut overtime compensation that had been paid to firefighters working at the site.

City Stood Firm

The day before the protest, a meeting was held at City Hall with Deputy Mayor Tony Coles and representatives from the fire unions and the PBA. The city refused to budge from its decision to cut the number of firefighters on the site from 64 to 25. The numbers of police officers from the NYPD and the Port Authority assigned to the recovery effort were also reduced to 25 and 15 respectively.

Last week, at the request of Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen, the number of firefighters assigned to the site was increased to 50; a number that the unions claimed was still too low.

PBA First Vice President John Puglissi and another police union official participated in the meeting, expressing concerns related to Police Officers and voicing support for the fire unions' position on the cutbacks at Ground Zero. Fire union officials said that they received a commitment that PBA leaders would participate in the next day's rally.

'Runaway Train'

Mr. Gallagher said that he and other UFA officials were confronted with such anger from their members over the city's decision that there would have been a demonstration had they participated in it or not.

"We told them [the PBA] that we were dealing with a runaway train and we were going to go in support of our members and try to quell the storm," said Mr. Gallagher. "We thought the PBA was on board and held up the rally waiting for them. I guess they decided this wasn't their fight, and I don't know why."

The UFA leader said that he believed a PBA presence at the demonstration could have helped avert the confrontations that erupted between cops and firefighters. "I believe it would have made a lot of difference," Mr. Gallagher said. "I think that the police officers would have honored our request to let us march peacefully to the site, say a prayer and leave."

Lynch: Rally a Mistake

Mr. Lynch, who had previously remained silent on the controversy, said that he had agreed to participate in a joint press conference with fire union officials, but felt that with "emotions this high,"  holding a rally at Ground Zero was a mistake.

"It is unfortunate that the fire unions have decided to attack the PBA for problems that they have internally," he said when asked about the UFA leader's account of the event. "There is no way that the presence of another union's president could have changed what happened. It was their job to make sure their members didn't embarrass the site and their union.

"The message that should have gone out was that the Mayor, Because of the way he wants his legacy viewed, wants to complete this job by December 31," said the PBA leader. "That message got lost because firefighters assaulted police officers. Pointing the finger toward our union doesn't change that."

Mr. Lynch said that his members, particularly Emergency Service Unit cops and precincts that lost officers, are also angered by the change in recovery procedures. "They want to be down there, too, digging as fast as they can to find their brothers and sisters, but when things like this happen, it takes away from that."

Put Cops on Spot

In addition to "denting" public support for both police and firefighters, he said, the rally placed his members in a particularly awkward position. "We have a dual purpose as a union," Mr. Lynch said. "We have to uphold the law in this city, and that's a difficult task."

To the dismay of fire union leaders, the protest at Ground Zero was portrayed as a battle-of-the-badges melee rather than an expression of their members' concerns over the handling of the recovery operation. No doubt, rivalries and resentments that have long characterized relations between Bravest and the Finest came into play at the demonstration. Some protesting firefighters griped that the NYPD's contingent of 25 officers assigned to the reduced recovery effort was equal to that of the FDNY, even though more that 10 times as many firefighters as cops remain missing. Others complained that while cops were better equipped that they were, they did less heavy lifting at Ground Zero.

For their part, some police officers reacted angrily to off-duty firefighters berating them for doing their job. Their co-workers too, they reminded the protesters, had died on the site.

Fire union officials claimed to see the hand of City Hall in both the moments of confrontation on November 2 and in the arrests that have followed.

"He [the Mayor] doesn't like the idea that we're resisting him going to a construction site," Said UFA Sergeant-at-Arms Tom Manley, when asked why he thought he had been arrested.

Mr. Manley and the UFA's Brooklyn Trustee Matty James were "put through the system," a six-hour process which began at about 6 p.m. on the evening of November 5 when they turned themselves in at the First Precinct in Lower Manhattan. They were then taken to Manhattan Central Booking and finally arraigned before a judge on criminal trespass charges.

NYPD officials asked the UFA's lawyer to have Mr. Manley and Mr. James view videotapes of the rally and identify rank-and-file firefighters whom police want to arrest, Mr. Manley said.

"What a question even to ask us that," said Mr. Manley. "Turn my members in, are you nuts?"

Three more firefighters were arrested November 7, before Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen asked the Mayor to halt the arrests out of concern that the apparent dragnet was inflaming emotions among both firefighters and the families of those lost.

"He wants to ratchet this thing down," the official said. "The arrests aren't doing anyone any good." The department has no intention of bringing administrative charges against those arrested, he added, with the possible exception of anyone who is charged with punching a police officer.

'Saddened by Arrests'

Some police union officials expressed unease over the prosecution of fire union leaders. "I'm saddened by these arrests," said Detective's Endowment Association President Thomas J. Scotto. "Everybody wished this hadn't happened, but it did."

Mr. Scotto declined to criticize the NYPD's decision to make the arrests, however, saying he had not witnessed the events at Ground Zero.

One police union leader criticized the city's handling of the situation. "I think it's a shame that this had to happen, and it's rather unusual that the people they're arresting are union officials," said John F. Driscoll, president of the Captain's endowment Association.

He also had questions about the tactics pursued when the firefighters marched on Ground Zero.

"Why not allow them a little rally; all they did was go down there, say an 'Our Father,' and then leave," he said.

Captain Driscoll said that normal police procedure when officers are heavily outnumbered by demonstrators is to allow the march to proceed while following along with it. This strategy has been employed successfully with impromptu rallies ranging from Haitians protesting the assault of Abner Louima to construction workers demonstrating against non-union contractors.

"I believe that someone in a bunker somewhere in City Hall gave the order to stop that march," said UFOA President Gorman. "Nobody there understood the emotions that were involved with this issue.