NYC firefighters fight City Hall and win

COMMENTARY

NEW YORK – Amidst the burning rubble of the World Trade Center, firefighters continue to extinguish the two-month-old fires and search for the remains of thousands still buried there. Just as it should be.

The administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to put a stop to the search for human remains and speed the process of clearing out the 16-acre site by turning it into a “scoop and dump” operation.

Without consultation with the unions representing firefighters working at Ground Zero, Giuliani announced cuts in staffing, citing safety concerns. But the mayor met his match and lost. After a Nov. 2 demonstration of 1,000 firefighters and mourning families to stop the unilateral cuts and continue a dignified recovery of the victims, a scuffle broke out between the marchers and the police. Twelve firefighters were arrested.

Over a five-day period seven more were rounded up, including the presidents and other officers of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) and Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA).

The last time a union leader was arrested in New York City was in 1966 when Mike Quill, Transport Workers Union president, called a transit strike in defiance of the state’s anti-labor Taylor Law.

Many firefighters and labor leaders were outraged by the “McCarthyite” tactics of the Giuliani administration. Others likened it to the tactics of fascist dictatorships. The firefighters had urged the city to make good on its promise to recover the remains of all the victims. Families flooded union offices with angry phone calls, but the administration refused to budge. The union leadership told the administration they had no choice but to march with their members and grieving families.

UFOA President Peter Gorman said, “City Hall knew about the demonstration. The mayor knew if the firefighters demonstrated peacefully he would look bad. So he did what he does best, he made sure that he would not [be made to] look bad by the firefighters or anyone else. He gave the order to stop the march.”

Public support was strong for reestablishing the original numbers at Ground Zero. On Nov. 7, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) held a press conference, calling off the national memorial service scheduled for Nov. 18 at Madison Square Garden. IAFF President Harold Shaitberger made it clear that he would bring the “full force” of the IAFF and its quarter-million members to bear on the city if it did not restore the necessary number of firefighters at the World Trade Center site.

On Nov. 12, the stalemate was broken after a meeting with 100 family members of World Trade Center victims. A 26-year retired firefighter, Lee Ielpi, who lost a son, made proposals that resulted in reassigning 75 firefighters in a new system organized to guarantee their health and safety. The number of large earth-movers on the site was cut to reduce the chances of bodies being inadvertently dumped at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, as two bodies were two weeks ago.

Firefighters are also organizing against anti-union, Republican policies on Capitol Hill. Legislation that would give firefighters the right to collective bargaining nationwide took a hit on Nov. 6 when the GOP defeated the National Collective Bargaining Bill. Firefighters have their right to collective bargaining determined by state law. The IAFF has been fighting for a federal law for all firefighters.

Schaitberger said, “Our members now know who has the courage to stand with America’s Bravest and who chooses to turn their backs ... [we’ll] never forget and we will be back.” It takes a fight to win and the NYC firefighters have won a fight for dignity for those who died Sept. 11 and for themselves.

The writer can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org.