His passion: Justice for Bravest

Steve Cassidy is in his fifth-floor office on E. 23rd St., where the walls are hung with photographs of the people he represents: the firefighters of New York.

Cassidy is a lean, compact man, a fireman since 1988, and since August he has been president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. Clearly, he believes this is no small thing, because those framed photographs are a constant reminder of his new duties. The images are, of course, heroic. They seem to feed Cassidy's mood, which is charged with tightly controlled anger.

"We're 28 months without a contract, and guys can't pay their bills," Cassidy says. "I run into them every day and they say to me, 'Steve, when are they gonna settle this? When are they going to do the right thing?' My response is, I'm gonna hold their feet to the fire if I have to. That's what this rally is about."

The UFA rally will be held tomorrow in Central Park, from noon to 2 p.m., with all those attending asked to use the park entrance at Fifth Ave. and E. 98th St. Cassidy agreed with Mayor Bloomberg about shifting it from Times Square, to avoid disrupting traffic and business. "We don't want the city to lose a dime in revenue," Cassidy says. But clearly, the UFA rally will be a kind of curtain raiser to the memorial service (including firefighters from all over the world) that will be held Saturday. Memory is essential to both rallies. But the UFA rally is primarily about fairness.

"It's not the same old business anymore," Cassidy says. "That's why I got elected, because I said I'd stand up and be a vocal advocate for firefighters. And that's what I intend to do. I don't care who I have to yell at, or whose attention I have to get, that's what I'm going to do. I know the city has fiscal constraints. But they just settled with the PBA. We want a contract. We want a fair contract. And we want a contract now."

How do firefighters live in New York on the pitiful salaries now paid to them by the city?

"It's scary," he said. "The young guys, earning say, $31,000 and change, they're living in their mother's houses. It's virtually impossible to have a wife and family and be a probationary firefighter. And it take five years to get the top pay, which is $49,000. I don't know how the guys live on top pay. Or, I do. They have second and even third jobs. Their wives work. Instead of having days off, they work. Some never see their kids at all."

Cassidy recognizes the post-Sept. 11 fiscal constraints on the city budget. "That's real. We know that. But when the city did have money, they locked this union and others into this 'pattern bargaining.' They would go out, settle with some small union, and then turn to us and say, 'That's what you get.'"

He takes a deep breath and shakes his head.

"That's been my complaint all along: You can't say to firefighters and police officers, 'You're the same as everybody else.' Because we're not. We proved it long before 9/11. And we proved it on 9/11. Our people ran into those buildings, knowing they had no contract, and did their jobs. We lost 60 firefighters and fire officers who weren't on duty that day." A pause. "If you're in a library looking for a book, you don't expect a librarian will come in on a day off and help you. Firemen came. They went into the buildings."

'Front-line defenders'

Muscles twitch in Cassidy's jaw, and he glances at some of the Ground Zero photographs on his walls. The argument about fiscal limits seems trivial compared to the work his men and women do for this city.

"The response is simple," he says. "The firefighters and police officers really are the front-line defenders of this city. They always have been. But it's clearer now than ever. We're not asking to be paid the kind of salaries that baseball players make, or people on Wall Street make. But we want to be paid enough so that guys can pay their bills and stay home with their families on their days off."

Cassidy and the UFA have assembled figures showing what firefighters earn in New York, the richest, most expensive city in the U.S., and what they earn in other cities. The most-quoted number points to Yonkers, which pays its rookie firefighters $54,211 a year, as compared with the $32,724 FDNY rookies get.

But the top salary might be an even better index of unjust treatment of the people we correctly call the Bravest. In cities with populations of more than 1 million, New York stands a pathetic seventh, with top pay of $49,023. This is more than a year since the department lost 343 members in a single terrible day.

The New York salary compares poorly with the $65,748 a year in Los Angeles County. Or Los Angeles proper ($63,747) or San Diego ($56,687) or Dallas ($53,091). When the salaries are adjusted for inflation (according to the Consumer Price Index), since 1990 Dallas firefighters have increased their base salaries by 23.9%, while New York's firefighters have actually seen their salaries reduced by 9.8%. This is an outrage.

"Every single politician comes to our funerals," Cassidy says. "Shows up at our promotions. And tells us how special we are. How great we are. But they don't want to pay us."

Commuter tax would help

Where would the money come from that would pay these brave men and women to do what few of us would ever do? To start with, the state Legislature, driven by the justified wrath of the mayor, could bring back the commuter tax, with all revenues mandated to pay cops and firefighters (who also protect commuters). That is, use that revenue for the front-line defense of the city, and the people who live and work here, not for paying down the debt.

In addition, increased pressure must be put on the federal government to subsidize police and firefighter salaries for the duration of the terrorism emergency (estimated at a minimum of 10 years). The feds can print money, which the mayor and governor, alas, can't do. The Bush administration is prepared to spend $200 billion on the war with Iraq. It must create a fund within that larger fund to pay the men and women who will be on the front lines here at home.

Those front lines are not merely lurid speculation. In a letter released Tuesday, CIA Director George Tenet warned Congress that war with Iraq could unleash terrorism in the U.S., including biological and chemical weapons. But everybody also knows that the simplest old-fashioned bombs could cause havoc. The New York targets of sleeper cells would almost certainly include subways and public buildings.

Who will be on the front lines if such a day ever comes? Not well-paid bureaucrats from well-defended undisclosed locations. Never. Down in the heart of darkness, doing the most dangerous work, trying to save human lives, will be the cops and firefighters.

If you have time, and you believe that the cause of the firefighters is just, show up at Central Park on Friday. These are our people. We have a moral obligation to give them what they need. Steve Cassidy will be there, speaking truth to power.


Fire union President Steve Cassidy reads names of 9/11 victims at memorial ceremony last month.