The New York Times

July 20, 2004

Unions Push for a Contract, and Attention


ACOALITION of the billing gathered outside Madison Square Garden yesterday - police officers, firefighters and teachers coming together on picket lines. There is nothing like financial self-interest to make sudden partners out of people normally devoted to old rivalries and separate agendas.

This temporary unity was forged by a commonality of contract demands, notably a belief that the city owes these public servants more than it does, say, a Board of Elections clerk, because they put themselves on the line in situations that are at best tough and at worst hazardous. They picketed to show indignation over their lack of a contract, and promised to continue into next week and perhaps beyond.

Why the Garden? Simple. The Republicans will hold their national convention there in six weeks, trying to "wrap themselves in 9/11," in the words of Patrick J. Lynch, president of the police officers' union.

Well, if they are going to do that, he said, they should know that the heroes of Sept. 11 - and the teachers, too - are not being dealt with fairly by a Republican mayor, one Michael R. Bloomberg.

This was street theater intended in part to embarrass the mayor in front of his party peers. Not that they are really his peers. As far as many of them are concerned, he is a RINO, a Republican in Name Only, suspiciously liberal on social issues and allied with them only out of political expedience.

Embarrassing Mr. Bloomberg is a tall assignment. "We don't have any extra money," he said dismissively yesterday when asked about the picketing. "All the protesting in the world," he said, "isn't going to change that fact."

An equally tall order is expecting Republicans around the country to rise in outrage when one of their own, RINO or no RINO, insists on holding the line on labor costs. With tax cuts tilted heavily toward the rich and a reluctance to raise the federal minimum wage, the national party cannot easily call itself the friend of the working man and woman.

That much was self-evident to one leader in the coalition of the billing, Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president. "Republicans have been so tone deaf, particularly to workers' needs and working families' needs," she said.

Mr. Lynch, too, acknowledged the awkwardness. Not that that his politics dovetails neatly with Ms. Weingarten's. Last week, he and other labor leaders representing uniformed workers took out a newspaper advertisement that spoke of fealty to the White House even in their unhappiness with City Hall. "At the Republican National Convention," the ad said, "New York City's police officers and firefighters would rather be inside supporting our president than outside protesting against a Republican mayor for a living wage."

BUT outside is where they are.

On the first morning of picketing, union members stood on the sidewalk, handing leaflets that proclaimed the justice of their cause to people pouring out of Pennsylvania Station. This was the morning rush, seemingly dominated by New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road riders.

In other words, this audience was loaded with men and women who benefited five years ago when Albany repealed the tiny commuter tax - less than one-half of 1 percent - that had been in place for several decades. By now, that tax would have brought the city $500 million a year or more, money that might have gone far to pay for the very raises demanded by the picketers.

No one in charge of the demonstration yesterday deemed that a thought worth mentioning.

Whatever ultimately happens in their contract dispute, the unionists reinforced a New York truism. With protests, as with real estate, three factors that can matter most are location, location, location. It was important to the workers to be at the Garden.

In that regard, they had something in common with antiwar and anti-Bush forces who want permission to rally in Central Park on Aug. 29, a day before the convention opens. That's an iconic location if ever there was one. Not a chance, the city says, insisting that the rally be shoved to the far west side of Manhattan.

But the antiwar types will be allowed to march past the Garden. Police officers, firefighters and teachers also want to protest outside the arena during convention week.

It is thus possible that, come late August, cops and anti-Bush types will find themselves on the barricades. Most likely, they will be on opposite sides of the barrier. But you never know.