The New York Times

August 11, 2004

Tensions With Unions and Protesters Build as Convention Approaches


Union officials representing firefighters and police officers said yesterday that they would not rule out strikes or other work stoppages during the Republican National Convention, raising the stakes in their battle to get new labor contracts with the city.

The unions have been trailing the mayor at his public events and heckling him relentlessly in recent days. Clearly buoyed by the increased attention that these demonstrations have attracted, several dozen firefighters, police officers and their union officials gathered briefly on the steps of City Hall yesterday to denounce both the mayor and their stalled contract negotiations, and to make veiled threats about the convention.

"The level of frustration is so high," said Stephen J. Cassidy, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, "I can't account for what might happen" during the convention.

When asked repeatedly if the two groups would consider striking or taking other labor actions, Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said, "We will not rule out anything."

The unions are barred by law from staging strikes or work stoppages, and under state law, their leaders cannot even call for such activity. But their remarks yesterday raised the specter of such labor actions during the convention, even if the unions do not officially sanction strikes or work stoppages.

Labor unrest during the convention — particularly involving groups lauded for their roles responding to the Sept. 11 attack — would be an embarrassment to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; he reached a deal with the Central Labor Council, an umbrella group of city labor organizations, in which unions agreed not to disrupt the convention, which runs from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2.

Edward Skyler, the mayor's press secretary, said the administration was not concerned about work stoppages during the convention and added, "I can't imagine they would pass up such a great opportunity to get overtime."

The police and firefighters have been working without a contract for two years. The Bloomberg administration has offered the unions essentially the same contract accepted by the largest municipal union, District Council 37, with a 5 percent raise over three years in exchange for some concessions. Mr. Skyler said yesterday that the raises could go as high as 8 percent, but only with changes in the police officers' and firefighters' work schedules.

Fire and police union officials have scoffed at the idea that they should be treated the same way as clerical and other city workers covered under the District Council 37 contract. "Mike Bloomberg says we're no different than people who push paper," Mr. Cassidy said. "That's a joke. It's a disgrace. It's an insult to the firefighters and police officers who risk their lives every day."

In adopting a more militant stance, the unions may be emboldened by what happened in Boston, where the police threatened to picket parties and events during the Democratic National Convention, but won a 14.5 percent raise over four years through a state arbitrator just before that convention began.

On Monday night, as the mayor met with a group of community leaders on West 10th Street, about 200 firefighters and police officers stood outside, screaming loudly throughout the event. When the mayor left, the uniformed workers, aided by some scaffolding that created excellent acoustics, screamed loudly at him, "Shame on you!"

Mr. Bloomberg, looking chagrined at having to be handled like Jessica Simpson emerging from Madison Square Garden, was all but pushed into his sport utility vehicle by his security detail, which had driven it onto the curb to avoid the protesters in the street. The group also heckled Mr. Skyler, saying, "Eddie, we know where you live," said some of the police officers assigned to patrol outside the meeting.

A small group also gathered yesterday outside a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, where the mayor had lunch with John A. Thain, chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange. Groups have trailed the mayor at news conferences at the Queens Museum of Art, near his town house on the Upper East Side and at other scattered events over the last month.

The number of protesters has increased. Sometimes the mayor stops and tries to talk, as he did at the museum. At other times, his security detail rushes him away. "We will continue to wake the mayor up in the morning and put him to bed at night," Mr. Lynch said yesterday.

The awkward situation between the mayor's security detail, as well as other police officers assigned to protect him, and protesting firefighters and police officers is one of several unusual factors that separate this labor conflict from others. The police and firefighters are strongly connected to the events of Sept. 11, and this association makes them more sympathetic figures, especially to a national audience. As Mr. Cassidy said bluntly yesterday, "Ultimately, this is about media attention."

Mr. Skyler said yesterday that the mayor remains undaunted. "No matter what tactics they use,'' he said, "the mayor isn't going to be intimidated into making a bad deal for the city."