April 30, 2003

Noisy Protest Against Layoffs

Special to the Sun

  UNITE Union workers and activists came to City Hall to protest the mayor’s proposed budget cuts.

Rattling noisemakers and blowing horns, some 20,000 city workers and activists rallied at City Hall yesterday against Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to lay off 10,000 municipal employees.

The sea of protesters filled Broadway, shouting "Who’s gonna fight for fairness and justice? We are! " and "Are we united? Yeah! " and waving colorful banners that read "Keep New York City Working."

"We need to tell the mayor and the governor that labor is in the house," bellowed Municipal Labor Committee Chairwoman Randi Weingarten from a podium beneath the large screen projecting the scene up Broadway. "Is labor in the house? " she asked.

"Yeah! " the mob shouted.

District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union with 125,000 members, organized the rally against the mayor’s infamous proposal to resolve $1 billion of the city’s $3.8 billion deficit. His plan proposes layoffs of 10,000 employees from nearly every city agency — in addition to the 4,483 layoffs he has already announced — if the state does not offer sufficient aid.

About an hour before the 5:30 rally, the group United for Peace and Justice, which organized several anti-war rallies in the city this year,amassed a 700-strong crowd to march down Broadway to City Hall from Washington Square Park.

"We link the billions spent for war on Iraq with the crying need to fund New York City hospitals, firehouses, schools, and more," said Bill Dobbs, the group’s media coordinator. "Bloomberg wants to balance [the budget] on the backs of the people who have the least."

But many participants used the parade to push other agendas.

"I refuse to let Osama bin Laden cancel my medical marijuana party," said Tracy "Medical Marijuana Barbie" Blevins, brandishing a large wooden marijuana leaf. "The city wastes lots of money arresting people for pot."

"Occupation is a crime in Iraq and Palestine," said Agi Groff, who carried a big yellow "Free Palestine" banner. "The budget is being cut because of all the money we give Israel so they can occupy Palestine."

At the rally, excited activists pumped up the crowd.

"We are the ones that built this city," said Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch. "We are the ones that keep it safe. We were on our hands and knees digging for our brothers and sisters [after 9/11]. The mayor praised us; now it’s time to back up that praise and support us. We need to feed our children."

"If they cut all the programs in the schools, where are these kids gonna go? Into the streets? " said Joann Vitulli, a kitchen aide at P.S. 22 in Queens. "Without the ladies in the kitchen…the kids don’t get fed. I’ve been working here for 25 years; how can they possibly cut us now? "

The mayor has warned unions he’d resort to cutting staff if they could not agree to $600 million in concessions to heal the budget gap. But union leaders have argued their members can’t afford salary or benefit cuts.The two sides have not met in three weeks.

The city has asked the state for $2.7 billion worth of help, but the prospect of aid before the June 30 budget deadline is bleak. At $12 billion, the state deficit is the nation’s second highest — California ranks first. Albany has rejected the mayor’s commuter income tax proposal, which would funnel $1 billion into the city.

If Albany declines to help, the mayor will enact measures that include eliminating the July 2003 Police Department cadet class and closing all 31 public outdoor pools.

A few hours before the rally, the mayor implied union leaders were at fault for the 1,200 layoffs already enacted, most of which came from the education and correction departments.

"They could have saved some of these jobs," he said."Now we’re down the road and now there’s going to be more job losses after this unless the unions step up."

The mayor added that he sympathizes with the workers’ plight.

"Nobody wants to lose their jobs," he said. "My commitment when I came into office was to do the best I can to protect the workers, downsize only through attrition and through early retirement. Unfortunately, our position at the moment is such that we have to have some layoffs."