August 23, 2004

New York police, fire unions appeal to president in contract battle

By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK -- The city's police and fire unions said Monday they want President Bush to intercede with Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg to help the unions win raises in their contract dispute with the city -- six days before the start of the Republican National Convention.

At a press conference Monday with the World Trade Center site as a backdrop, the unions said they sent a letter to the president on Aug. 17 seeking his "help and support."

"We sent off a letter respectfully asking him for help," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "This mayor does not respect the uniformed workers of the city ... and we want the president to understand what is going on."

The police and fire unions, which have not ruled out staging an illegal strike or sickout during the Republican National Convention, are seeking significant pay raises. The convention, during which President Bush is to be renominated, will be held at Madison Square Garden from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

In recent weeks, union members have trailed the mayor to his public events, and last week dozens of off-duty police officers and firefighters staged a noisy demonstration outside the mayor's house at 1 a.m. Their leadership planned to file a lawsuit in federal court on Tuesday seeking to stop police from using barriers and other tactics to prevent pickets from coming within 30 feet of the mayor and his home.

The unions' recent actions -- including the press conference at Ground Zero and the letter to the president -- represent a ratcheting up of tactics seeking to link the need for pay hikes to the deaths of 343 firefighters and 23 police officers killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

"As incredibly busy as you must be, it may have escaped your attention that New York City's police officers and firefighters -- the heroes of 9/11 -- are engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the city's Republican mayor," the letter begins. "For that reason, we are taking the unusual measure of writing to you to inform you of our predicament and to make a personal appeal for your help and support in the effort to correct what has become a perennial injustice inflicted on these crucial first-responders."

Said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius: "We encourage all parties to come to an agreement on this issue."

The unions have been working without contracts for more than two years.

Bloomberg, who has maintained that the city can not afford to give its workers large raises, dismissed the letter.

"We don't get federal monies that have anything to do with our ability to pay our municipal workforce," he said. "And none of it is up to the federal government. The federal government, I'm sure, would never have a conversation with the city over that. It would be inappropriate."

Several other city unions, including District Council 37, the city's largest, have accepted a 5 percent raise plus a $1,000 lump sum payment over three years. One percent of the raise is in the form of a so-called "productivity enhancement," which range from being required to work longer hours to accepting fewer health benefits.

In addition, the unions have the option of receiving another 2 percent in productivity enhancements if they choose as the contract progresses.

The Bloomberg administration has offered the police and fire unions essentially the same deal. The police and fire unions, however, have denounced productivity enhancements as "givebacks," and they said they will not accept them.

The unions maintain that because of the dangers of their work, they deserve more significant pay hikes than other city workers.

Police have been without a contract since July 31, 2002, and firefighters since May 31, 2002. The situation fits a pattern of retroactive contracts and negotiations that routinely ignore expiration dates and end in arbitration.

Each union has declared an impasse -- and the contracts will likely be settled eventually through binding arbitration, which has occurred relatively frequently in the past as well.