August 16, 2002

Uniform Demands

Police and firefighters rally in midtown for pay raises

By Leonard Levitt and Peter Bailey STAFF WRITERS

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Pumped up with pride and indignation, thousands of police and firefighters turned up the heat yesterday on Mayor Michael Bloomberg for proposing a pay raise they denounced as paltry.

The orderly, boisterous two-hour demonstration packed six city blocks from Times Square almost down to Herald Square. It brought out upward of 15,000 from departments that have garnered national recognition for their response to the Sept. 11 attack and heavy casualties in their ranks.

With fierce speeches and hand-scrawled signs, the crowd demanded larger annual pay raises than the 5 percent a year for two years that the cash-strapped city has recommended.

"Pump up the paychecks!" the crowd roared.

Weathering the blistering heat, the demonstrators swigged from Gatorade bottles, talked on cell phones and kept things from getting too somber for too long.

In one part of the crowd, a dozen or so officers wearing shirts emblazoned with a mock slogan "Be Poor: Join NYPD 212-RECRUIT," chanted: "Bloomie wears Bloomers."

"Bloomie You're Made of Money - We're Not," read a sign carried elsewhere by Officer Vinnie Ewart, 35.

Other signs targeted Bloomberg's law-and-order predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, who held police salaries steady in 1996 and 1997 in light of budget pressures and in spite of contentions by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president at that time that officers should be rewarded for the sharp drop in crime.

The state Public Employee Relations Panel recently recommended pay raises of 5 percent a year for officers, emphasizing the city's arguments about its hard-pressed financial condition. The panel also recommended that cops work an additional 10 days a year. Negotiations continue, with PBA president Pat Lynch calling for a 23 percent pay hike over two years.

Bloomberg has said he would like to pay police and firefighters more but is hampered by the city budget.

Uniformed Firefighters Association spokesman Tom Butler, meanwhile, said his union had been without a contract for 27 months and without a pay hike. The union's leaders tentatively agreed to a 5 percent annual wage increase last year, but they decided not to put it out to a ratification vote after Sept. 11.

Yesterday's rally began on an emphatic note.

A clutch of construction workers, perched atop a high-rise on Broadway, unfurled a banner that announced: "More Money for FD-PD."

A stage was set up at 42nd Street and Broadway for appearances by James Gandolfini, who plays New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series "The Sopranos," the Radio City Rockettes, and politicians.

While some elected officials who were invited skipped the event, according to the organizers, one who did attend, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, drew a roar of boos as she approached the podium.

That changed when Clinton called it "unconscionable" that, despite the Sept. 11 attack, the police, who lost 23 officers, and firefighters, who lost 343 from their ranks, have not received raises since then. "I don't think there should be zeroes for heroes," she said.

The senator was followed by firefighters' union head Stephen Cassidy. "We're tired of politicians coming to our funerals and telling our widows how great we were," he said. He added, in error, that a rookie firefighters made only $425 a day.

"A week!" the crowd called back, referring to the correct weekly salary.

"All of these politicians were at Ground Zero talking about how much we were worth," said Brooklyn firefighter Kevin Roth, who was part of the throng. "Eleven months later, it's business as usual.

Reaction from City Hall last night was muted. A Bloomberg spokesman, reading from a prepared statement, said, "We have the best police officers and firefighters in the world and the mayor has no problem with the peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of expression."

The PBA's Web site recently has linked to law enforcement job openings from around the country. Starting salaries listed are generally higher than the $31,305 rookie NYPD officers earn.