June 9, 2004

Upward of 60,000 City Workers Rally At City Hall Demanding Pay Increases

Firefighters, Police, and Teachers Join Forces

Staff Reporter of the Sun

TOGETHER THEY STAND Tens of thousands of city firefighters, police officers, and teachers gathered at City Hall yesterday to call on the mayor to raise their wages.

Tens of thousands of chanting teachers, police officers, and firefighters clogged the streets around City Hall yesterday in the largest labor rally in recent memory to show solidarity for higher wages.

Demonstrators thronged Broadway alongside City Hall Park. Union officials estimated that 60,000 workers attended the rally, which stretched from the park’s base past Federal Plaza five blocks north of Chambers Street.

The rally was intended to drive home the point that the union workers strongly opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s request that they accept contracts similar to one struck last month by the city’s largest municipal union, District Council 37, which included small raises and lower starting salaries for new employees.

Union leaders, whose voices boomed over loudspeakers and whose images illuminated three giant television screens lining Broadway, demanded an end to pattern bargaining.

“We’re not asking to be rich like you, Mr. Mayor,” said the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch. “We’re asking you to keep your word and pay us like the professionals we are.”

In recent days,Mr.Bloomberg has disparaged the rally and strikes by home aides and day-care workers as political posturing aimed at pressuring City Hall. The mayor said it was wrong for the unions to expect wage increases without their members doing extra work.

At a news briefing early yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg called the rally “great theatrics” and insisted the city should offer raises only if the unions agree to increase productivity. “I think if they spent half of their time coming to the bargaining table rather than protesting they’d probably do a lot better,”he said.

Some 7,500 day-care workers and supervisors are expected to launch a three-day strike today from 350 centers that tend to 50,000 children. The walkout follows that of 23,000 home aides, several thousand of whom will end a three-day strike today (story, page 13).

District Council 37, which represents 120,000 municipal workers in various fields, overwhelmingly ratified a contract that provided for a one-time $1,000 payment, a 3% raise in the second year, a 2% raise in the third year, and the potential for an additional 1% pay hike based on productivity. It also reduced the salaries of new workers by 15%.

Union leaders, and many of their members who crowded the street yesterday, insisted the terms of the DC 37 contract were unacceptable for professionals who put their lives at risk and educate the city’s 1.1 million school children. None of the union leaders would detail their demands.

“It’s an insult,” said Bob Spadaro, a 44-year-old firefighter from Sheepshead Bay,Brooklyn.“It’s an insult to the DC 37 workers, too. The difference is they make a lot less money and the city has them over a barrel.”

In many ways, the demonstration resembled a pep rally aimed at showcasing the strength of organized labor in New York City.

Union leaders said the rally had the broadest support of any in at least a decade, as members of unions representing transit workers, actors, daycare workers, home aides, and uniformed officers, among others, gathered to lend support. Actors Alec Baldwin and Steve Buscemi, a former city firefighter, addressed the crowd.

Hundreds of firefighters wore yellow T-shirts reading “Firefighters For Fair Pay,” while teachers in white painter’s caps and police officers in blue waved signs with an array of messages: “No Way To Treat Heroes,” “$1,000 Minus Taxes = Peanuts,” and “A Teacher’s Work Is Never Done.”

Some of the signs and the rhetoric used by the speakers played on Mr. Bloomberg’s quest for a second term. The message was simple: Agree to higher wages or face the wrath of organized labor in next year’s election.

“Mr. Mayor, next year you’re asking New Yorkers for a new four-year contract for yourself. How about you take care of us now?” the Uniformed Firefighters Association’s president, Steve Cassidy, said at the rally.

At the halfway point of the two-hour demonstration, workers began to chant “Bloomberg sucks” in response to a rallying cry. The chanting brought smiles to the faces of some union leaders on stage, none of whom asked the crowd for civility.

The demonstration was tame when compared to massive labor protests of yesteryear. In 1992, demonstrating police officers traipsed over parked cars as they stormed the steps of City Hall.

All three unions are a sensitive subject for Mr. Bloomberg, who routinely touts the city’s record of reducing crime, continues to take political heat for closing firehouses last year, and has made education reform the centerpiece of his administration.

Union leaders said many of their members have left the city for similar higher-paying jobs in the suburbs.

The president of the 95,000-member United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, noted the city has a $1.3 billion budget surplus, some of which should go toward higher salaries.

“Common sense cries out for competitive wages and decent working conditions, but that never seems to be a priority for this administration,” Ms. Weingarten said. “How can we continue to attract and retain the best when the administration turns its back?”

City officials have warned of budget deficits topping $3.8 billion beginning in 2006. Budget analysts blame the projected deficits on ballooning fixed costs of pension benefits, debt service, and Medicaid.

Democratic elected officials who addressed the crowd — including potential mayoral candidates City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Comptroller William Thompson Jr. — said the city should not be stingy. Neither is involved on contract talks.

Mr. Bloomberg noted wryly: “It’s great to be a mayor handing out raises, but we just don’t have the money.”