The New York Times

June 9, 2004

Unlikely Partners in a Protest for Pay Raises


In a spirited showing of labor strength, thousands of teachers, police officers and firefighters packed several blocks of Broadway near City Hall yesterday, chanting and waving signs and at times booing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in a demonstration of their demands for raises and new labor contracts.

The hourlong program featured dozens of labor leaders and city Democratic politicians pledging their support, including City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. and Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who are both considering a mayoral run next year, and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. They were joined by a handful of celebrities, including the New York Knicks player Stephon Marbury and the actors Alec Baldwin and Steve Buscemi, a former New York City firefighter.

"I'm not a hero; the firefighters and the teachers are the heroes," Mr. Marbury told the crowd, which remained calm and orderly as the succession of speakers appeared on three giant screens set up for the crowd.

For all the celebrity focus, the protesters were mostly the teachers, police officers and firefighters who carry out the city's business every day with little public recognition, and in recent years, without steady raises or even a contract.

"I'm here to get a pay raise because we're worth it," said Felicia Montgomery, 34, a police officer in the Bronx who earns about $54,000 a year after more than 13 years on the force.

The three unions organized the rally to impress upon Mr. Bloomberg that they want a contract that is considerably more generous than the pact accepted in April by District Council 37, the largest municipal union. The D.C. 37 contract calls for raises totaling 5 percent over three years, with the possibility of slightly more if they agree to certain productivity improvements.

Leaders from the three unions say the city needs to give the teachers and uniformed workers raises of considerably more than 5 percent if it is to attract all the personnel it needs and stem the exodus of these workers to higher-paying suburbs.

Mayor Bloomberg has insisted that all city unions follow the wage pattern established by District Council 37, which represents 121,000 workers. In past bargaining rounds, however, the teachers, police and firefighters repeatedly urged the city not to follow lock-step pattern bargaining, suggesting in part that they deserved higher raises because of their special jobs and skills.

Mayor Bloomberg did not attend yesterday's protest, but he said during a news conference earlier in the day that if the unions could find a way to provide better service to the city at less cost, he would be willing to return those savings to municipal workers in the form of raises.

"If they spent half of the time coming to the bargaining table, rather than protesting, they'd probably do a lot better," the mayor said. "Although I will say that I'm thrilled to read in the paper that our bravest and the finest are going to protest together; who said there's a battle of the badges? It shows they really can cooperate."

Union leaders traditionally use labor rallies at City Hall to try to pressure mayors into softening their bargaining positions and to rally public support behind their cause. With Mayor Bloomberg predicting a $1.5 billion budget surplus this year, leaders of the three unions that rallied yesterday insist that Mr. Bloomberg can afford to be more generous than he was with District Council 37.

Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, asked people at the protest yesterday to call 311 - a pet project of the mayor's - and demand that firefighters, police officers and teachers be paid a fair wage. A number of people reached for their cellphones and started dialing.

"The purpose of the rally is to highlight the draconian negotiating tactics of the Bloomberg administration, which directly hurts my officers, their families and public safety," said Mr. Cassidy, whose 8,500 firefighters have worked for two years without a contract, and for three years without a raise. "The mayor and this administration don't value the special work that we do."

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents more than 22,000 police officers, known as New York's finest, told the crowd that "we're actually New York's poorest."

Union officials said they spent more than $150,000 to organize the protest, which included an elaborate sound stage and television screens as well as newspaper ads, signs, fliers and buttons. Several protesters carried a large papier-mâché puppet with a graduation cap and a sign that read "Respect Our Teachers."

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 100,000 educators and teaching aides, said her members had initially planned to hold a rally in May to mark the anniversary of their contract's expiration, but then decided to join with the police and firefighters' unions to vent frustration over what they see as the administration's delaying tactics in contract negotiations.

"This is the first time that the three essential services of New York have come together to send a unified message to invest in us," she said.

Margaret Ilardi, 34, came to the protest along with 17 other teachers from her school, P.S. 198 in the Bronx. "We want to be able to work with security, and we don't have that when we don't have a contract," she said.