Firefighters struggle for dignity

NEW YORK – In the glare of local TV news cameras, two more leaders of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) surrendered to police custody, Nov. 5, at the First Precinct just a few blocks from the remains of the World Trade Center disaster.

Since Nov. 2, the Giuliani administration has launched an unprecedented roundup of union leaders who led a protest against the Mayor’s decision to cut the workforce at Ground Zero.

The roundup began after 12 firefighters were arrested at an emotional gathering of 1,000 firefighters, their families and grieving survivors to protest the decision, made without consultation, by the Giuliani administration.

On Oct. 31, the number of firefighters was cut from 64 to 25 to cover the 16 square acres of the disaster site. The Mayor said the cuts were made due to safety issues. Thomas Manley, sergeant-at-arms for UFA, responded to this claim saying, “Heavy machinery has been there since day one. We’ve been working side by side. We’re professionals. We were promised by the Mayor that we would be allowed to bring out all the bodies until the last brick was removed. Why are they changing their modus operandi now?” No firefighters have been hurt in rescue operations since Sept 11.

The New York Times reported that the unions said that the city is treating the World Trade Center (WTC) as just another construction site and wanted it tidied up by Dec. 31, the end of Guiliani’s term, and cared more about removing the hordes of gold and silver underneath the WTC than they do about human remains. One rally speaker said, “It’s all about money.”

The Nov. 2 march started at the corner of West Street and Chambers Street and proceeded towards the WTC. UFA President Kevin Gallagher called to the police with a bullhorn. “Please allow us to walk to the site in a dignified manner,” he said. “Some of you officers also lost brothers. Walk with us and we’ll go peacefully.” Construction workers on the site cheered and stopped their work.

It was reported that commanding officers pushed into the crowd, fist fights broke out and a barricade was knocked over. The electronic media seized on these episodes, but the New York Daily News reported that in a few moments it was over. One arrested firefighter said that the police officer who drove him to the station cried and said, “You guys were set up.”

The 12 arrested were held through the weekend and released with charges reduced to misdemeanors.

The Guiliani administration, not satisfied with those arrests, pressed ahead with arrests of the presidents of the UFA and the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA). UFOA President Peter Gorman was told to turn himself in or “be hunted down like a fugitive,” according to UFOA lawyer Steven Rabinowitz.

The arrests of firefighters – who are seen as working-class heros in this city – have been characterized by the firefighters’ unions as “Anti-American” and “McCarthyism.”

According to the Executive Board of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, “The mayor fails to realize that New York City is not a dictatorship, where if you don’t like what a union is doing you can just go and lock up that union’s president. The message being sent from City Hall is that if you don’t agree with this administration, we will get you. This is an outrage. This is not what America is about!”

When the two presidents were released on Sunday, 20 union leaders from the New York Central Labor Council spoke out at a press conference calling for an apology from the Mayor. The New York Postreported that union officials are considering a lawsuit for false arrest and malicious prosecution.

Solidarity with the firefighters is deep among New York workers. As the firefighters left Ground Zero during the Nov. 2 protest, an impromptu honor guard of construction workers walked them out. As they continued the march to City Hall – chanting, “Bring our brothers home” – people cheered along the way. A local TV news poll showed that 88 percent of New Yorkers support firefighters staying on the site.

At the Nov. 5 protest, UFA leader Manley, was asked before he entered the First Precinct Station if the arrests are a witch-hunt to silence opposition. “Absolutely!” he replied. “We didn’t do anything at all wrong. They [the Giuliani administration] want to take attention away from what they are doing and put us in the spotlight like we are doing something wrong.”

For the grieving families and firefighters this struggle is about dignity for those who lost there lives. Matty James, UFA Brooklyn Trustee, arrested on Monday, said, “When American Indian and Black grave sites were found on Wall Street they were treated as sacred ground. The WTC is sacred ground for over 4,000, not a full time construction scoop and dump operation.”

In the last few days, two dismembered bodies were found in the wreckage shipped to Freshkills Landfill in Staten Island. On the day of the demonstration, firefighters found 10 bodies.

Larger protests are being considered, with national participation by the International Association of Firefighters.