The New York Times

June 10, 2004

Labor Demands Cast a Rich Mayor in a Miserly Light


Each June, labor protests are to New York City as dogwood blossoms are to the rest of the Northeast; spring would seem a bit empty without them.

A confluence of labor actions this week - three-day strikes held by day care workers and home health aides, and a protest that drew tens of thousands of firefighters, police officers and teachers outside City Hall - underscored the unusually painful headache that unions present to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

In a week in which Mr. Bloomberg saw his approval figures edge above 50 percent, the labor strife provided a stark reminder that the mayor has a deeply antagonistic relationship with large swaths of unionized workers. The unions, in turn, have found a sharp knife to insert in Mr. Bloomberg's weakest spot - his image as a wealthy and impervious Daddy Warbucks unsympathetic to the wage demands of the home health worker making $7 an hour or the patrol officer making $37,000 a year.

During the rally on Tuesday, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, bellowed: "We are not asking to be rich like you, Mr. Mayor. All we're asking for is to make our lives better for our families."

While few New York voters are likely to cast their vote on the basis of a few labor protests, the demonstrations do symbolize what increasingly appears to be the central, if not singular, impediment to Mr. Bloomberg's re-election bid.

The fact is that millions of New Yorkers, whether they have gotten over their higher taxes or have learned to do their smoking on the street, still insist that the mayor's wealth separates him spiritually from the rest of the city. And unions give those sentiments a voice.

"The whole situation is unique," said Josh Freeman, a professor of labor history at Queens College. "To have a billionaire as mayor is a very unusual situation, and I think there have been some efforts to get at the mayor on this populist ground."

Yesterday, day care workers at 350 centers that serve more than 30,000 low-income children began a three-day strike, an action that started a day after the huge labor protest demanding raises for police, firefighters and teachers. Each group is negotiating with the city against the backdrop of a recently ratified contract between the city and its largest labor union, District Council 37. Under that agreement, workers would receive a $1,000 one-time cash payment instead of a raise the first year of the contract, a 3 percent raise in the second year and 2 percent the third. The Bloomberg administration believes that contract sets the pattern for agreements with the other unions, though the other unions have dismissed those terms as insufficient.

Mr. Bloomberg is in a particularly difficult situation with teachers and day care workers. The latter, who care primarily for children of the poor, have been without a contract since April 2000 and without a raise since December 2000, and are among the city's lowest-paid workers. They are not municipal workers, but their employers are heavily financed by the city, and their plight draws attention to the sorts of economic disparities that Mr. Bloomberg's opponents may seize on once the election draws closer.

The negotiations with the teachers may become more complicated because a recent court decision declared that the city was entitled to more state education funds from Albany. The teachers, naturally, feel that part of any increase in funds should end up in their paychecks. This is not lost on the administration. "That is a real issue," one official said.

Mr. Bloomberg, who takes pains not to attack his adversaries publicly, has derided unions either gently, by suggesting that they stop protesting and start bargaining, or more pointedly, as he often does with Mr. Lynch, the police union official with whom he has a deeply frosty relationship.

"We have gone from a cold war to hot war," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers' union, who said Tuesday's protest was the largest gathering of union members at City Hall in recent memory, something that political experts and Bloomberg officials do not dispute.

"There is some talk about his wealth," she said. "But John F. Kennedy certainly was wealthy, but there was a connect there with the people. I have no idea why Mayor Bloomberg doesn't have that."

Edward Skyler, the mayor's press secretary, said the mayor was not concerned with union leaders waging a class-based attack. "The public is going to judge the mayor on his record, not on somebody's else's rhetoric," he said.

Many labor leaders have been extremely frustrated by their inability to influence Mr. Bloomberg at the bargaining table with a promise of an endorsement in 2005, administration and union officials said. Mr. Bloomberg squeaked to victory in 2001 with just a single union backing him.

The mayor does have a better relationship with the private-sector unions, like the union that represents hotel and restaurant workers and construction trade groups.

"Initially our relationship was not that good," said Edward J. Malloy, president of the Building Construction Trades Council, but, he added, there are "a lot of projects slated for the West Side, which brings in a lot of tax revenue that supplements the operational budget of the city and benefits all city workers."