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N.Y. Firefighters Get Cold Shoulder on Wage Demands

Dispute: Heroes of Sept. 11 attacks square off against the mayor over a contract. They want generous raises in times of fiscal constraint.

October 11, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — They have been hailed as national heroes and honored as "New York's bravest." City leaders can't say enough about their firefighters, but giving them the hefty wage increase they want is another matter.

In a dispute that has become highly embarrassing to the Big Apple, New York firefighters on Thursday rejected the city's latest wage offer, calling it inadequate. Tensions are likely to increase today, when thousands of them plan to hold a rally in Central Park, and then pack Madison Square Garden on Saturday for a special service honoring the 343 firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's good that public officials come to our funerals and honor us for 9/11 heroism," said Steve Cassidy, who heads the Uniformed Firefighters Assn. "But we need a living wage. We deserve it--and we don't have it."

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who does not enjoy sparring with firefighters, insists his hands are tied by the city's looming $5-billion budget deficit. He has asked all city agencies, including the Fire Department, to prepare for deep cuts in next year's budget.

Firefighters should not expect any miracles, he adds, at a time when the city may have to consider raising property taxes and increasing transit fares. But that does not stop him from praising the Fire Department..

"For people all over the world, the acronym FDNY has come to stand for the ultimate in courage and professionalism," the mayor said last week as he swore in 228 probationary firefighters at Brooklyn College.

"You now join a Fire Department that has earned its reputation as New York's bravest," he added, without mentioning the touchy issue of money.

The 9,000 members of New York's Fire Department, the nation's largest, have worked without a contract for the last 27 months and have not had a raise in 40 months. Their pay is low compared with salaries earned by counterparts in other big cities, as well as in smaller towns surrounding New York.

A rookie firefighter in New York City, for example, earns $32,724 annually, compared with $54,211 in Yonkers, a small town north of the city.

The disparity is even more pronounced when it comes to New York City firefighters' rate of salary increase over the last five years compared with other jurisdictions with at least 1 million residents. New York has a 21.7% rate, trailing Los Angeles County (43.9%), the city of Los Angeles (40.3%), Chicago (39.8%), Philadelphia (36.9%) and Detroit (28.6%), according to a study by the International Assn. of Firefighters, based in Washington, D.C.

Given their sacrifices on Sept. 11, New York firefighters say, the city should make a financial exception and give them a generous pay increase.

"We're looking at special circumstances," said a firefighter standing outside a station house on Manhattan's Upper East Side, insisting on anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations. He gestured to photos of six colleagues who perished at the World Trade Center and shook his head, saying: "I can't believe they won't make us a decent offer."

As the city's economic situation continues to deteriorate, however, some observers say the union might never get the deal it wants. New York's most recent offer, which was spurned by union delegates, called for an 11.5% increase over 30 months. Firefighters had been hoping for a raise along the lines of the 16% to 23% increases recently given to members of the politically powerful United Federation of Teachers.

Bloomberg quickly criticized the 365-2 vote by UFA delegates against the city's proposal, cautioning union members that they should not expect any sudden burst of generosity, given the deepening fiscal crisis.

"In a sense, their [firefighters'] time has passed," said Chuck Brecher, research director for the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group. "The discussion and the public is mainly focusing on the budget crisis."

This is particularly galling to the firefighters, because they had kept a fairly low profile as Bloomberg approved separate wage deals with the teachers and the Policemen's Benevolent Assn. They postponed their consideration of the 11.5% offer, in fact, because it was made weeks before the terrorist attacks, and union leaders of the traumatized department said they needed a year of recovery before reentering the labor fray.

Meanwhile, Cassidy and other union officials have locked horns with the city over other issues, including whether New York City equipped its firefighters with two-way radios that badly malfunctioned on Sept. 11, leading to the department's high death toll.

"You know, we're not talking about breaking the bank with a pay raise," said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the firefighters' union. "This is a simple matter of equity for people who put their lives on the line every day."

Many rookie firefighters, he said, cannot afford to raise a family in New York City on $32,724 a year. As a result, Butler added, they either put off starting a family or work second jobs.

Beyond the economic hardships, he said, the department's low wage scale could make it increasingly difficult to recruit applicants in years ahead, especially from minority communities. The FDNY, which is 90% white male, is one of the least diverse big-city departments in the nation.

Hours after the union vote, Bloomberg said "we are disappointed" at the firefighters' salary demands. He vowed that New York City leaders would continue to negotiate a wage package in good faith--but with no illusions.

Yet Cassidy, who has been a firefighter since 1988, seems to be digging in for a long battle. He is banking that sympathy for the plight of New York firefighters will make a difference.

"We have been showered with accolades," he said. "But these accolades do not feed families or pay mortgages. It's time to do the right thing."

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