June 14, 2009

Pondering the Difference Between Good Protests and Bad Protests in Providence

Carroll Andrew Morse

Providence Mayor David Cicilline has called Providence Firefighter's Local 799 decision to picket this year's Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors an attempt at "extortion"…

As you may know, next week, for the first time ever, our city will have the honor of hosting the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Providence to shine on the national stage, highlighting all the good things about our city, and all the accomplishments of our community.

But this opportunity is now in jeopardy. Because the union bosses have decided to picket next week’s meeting. The result of the union’s action is that members of the Obama Administration, including Vice President Biden, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Education and eight other members of his cabinet won’t be coming to Rhode Island.

The union thinks this will force me to agree to a bloated, unaffordable contract. They are expecting me to cave in and allow the taxpayers to pay the price. I will not give in to this political extortion.
The Providence Journal Editorial Board opted for the term "intimidation"…
It is sad that Providence firefighters will apparently refuse to set aside their tactics of intimidation during the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Providence this coming weekend.
But given that the firefighters are not the only ones protesting outside of the Mayor's conference this weekend, it's fair to ask why this picketing by the firefighters on Saturday morning is considered intimidating…


…when this activity, from Friday afternoon's Head Start protest, is not…


Er, maybe that second photo wasn't such a great choice for illustrating the point I'm trying to make. Allow me to re-queue…


But given that the firefighters are not the only ones protesting outside of the Mayor's conference this weekend, it's fair to ask why this picketing by the firefighters on Saturday morning is considered intimidating…


...when this activity, from Friday afternoon's omnibus left-wing protest at Kennedy Plaza, is not…


Have you heard anyone, Mayor Cicilline or the Projo editorial board or anyone else, say that the assorted left-wingers who have showed up in Providence for the Mayor's conference shouldn't be there, because they're making the city and the state look bad? If not, then why should firefighters, uniquely amongst the assorted protesters, stand accused of casting Rhode Island in a bad light? (Especially, when according to this Richard C. Dujardin Projo story, the left-wing protests seem as likely as any to discourage visitors from attending events associated with the conference)...

With signs declaring "Take Back the city" and "Mayor Cicilline, We will not be silenced," a noisy crowd of nearly 300 activists marched from Broad Street to the center of Kennedy Plaza Friday night, calling on the nation's mayors to enact measures to make sure federal stimulus dollars go into projects that will benefit the poor -- instead of the pockets of corporations with political connections....

There is no question that sounds from at least part of the noisy demonstration filtered into the white tent where the nation's mayors were gathered, though drums from a regimental band drowned out some of the sounds.

One mayor, from outside Chicago, said he hadn't expected "any of this" and called a cab to take his family to a restaurant somewhere else.

I'll offer two theories of why the focus is on saying that firefighters shouldn't protest, while taking no position on what other protesters are doing. As always, I welcome objections to my ideas and the addition of others.

  1. There may be a sincere belief amongst some Rhode Islanders that a union protest is inherently more significant than a non-union one, because a union protest can "compel" certain actions by government officials. However, this belief is hardly an uncontested one. John E. Mulligan of the Projo provides one example from a visiting mayor…
    "This is a very bad decision that was made'' by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and other White House officials to withdraw from the convention," Patrick Henry Hays, mayor of North Little Rock, Ark., said in an interview. But Hays said if he is invited to the White House, he would probably accept. "I don't want to take what has been a pretty bitter plate of sour grapes and try to magnify that,'' he said.

    "I am a Democrat'' from a strong union family background, Hays said, ``and I can't tell you how excited I am about the partnership that has been forged'' between mayors and the White House in the early months of the Obama administration. But he called it "a big mistake'' for the White House to back out of the mayors meeting in order to respect firefighters union picket lines aimed at Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline….

    Hays said the firefighters success in keeping the Obama administration out of Providence might give other municipal unions ideas. "I'd be very reluctant to invite an Obama administration official to my city now,'' Hays said, because a union in bargaining talks with him might raise a picket line.

    …and Ian Donnis of WRNI (1290 AM) radio's On Politics blog provides another, from the text of an e-mail written by a local Obama supporter…
    I am extremely disappointed in the response of President Obama and his administration to the dispute between the City of Providence and the Providence firefighters. It is a clear signal that the President is lacking in his support for the challenges that cities and towns across the country are engaged in to manage the impossible budget problems they face in these unprecedented times.
    Encouragingly, the leaders of America's cities seem to understand that there's more governing a municipality than figuring out how to give the unions what they want -- and it's only our current Federal leadership that seems to believe that unquestioning deference to unions is a core governing principle!

    The solution here is to choose different leaders, not to discourage protests.

  2. Beyond the issue of union versus non-union protesting, I can't help but think there's something deeper at work. To my ear, at least, there are definite similarities between some of the commentary discouraging the firefighters' protest and some of the commentary discouraging the recent statehouse protests (albeit originating from different sources).

    I think tea-party-goers will know the kinds of arguments that I'm talking about, i.e. what do you really think you are adding by making your dissatisfaction public? If better solutions were possible, don't you think the government would have already bestowed them upon you? Don't you realize your job, if you've got one -- whether you're in the public or the private sector -- is to do your job QUIETLY and let government handle everything else, because it knows what's best for you?

    I know I'm not terribly impressed when these kinds of arguments are hurled in my direction -- I don't think the firefighters should be expected to take them seriously either.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Thank you, Andrew for keeping things objective, and shedding some light on some things I hadn't considered.

Posted by: michael at June 14, 2009 11:32 AM

I hope you don't mind, I linked this over at www.rescuing-providence.blogspot.com

Posted by: michael at June 14, 2009 11:42 AM

Andrew (and Justin, Monique, etc),

I appreciate the level-headedness and honesty being shown on this blog regarding this issue even though I realize that we differ in our opinions on the larger labor issues. As I wrote earlier, it is refreshing.

I need your help, however. Someone (and I'm convinced it is George Elbow) is posting anti-FF and anti Paul Doughty rhetoric on ProJo.com under the name "SelflessTKenney".

I call him out right here and ask you to attempt to stop this cowardly attack.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at June 14, 2009 12:54 PM

Good post Andrew.

I am glad that the Obama administration has chosen to respect picket lines. It signals a change in policy towards labor which has favored the weathly and not the worker for so many years. Finally Washington is standing up for workers. That is long over due.
This action is not a sign of weakness as some has suggested but rather it demonstrates the new administration's principle. It's almost as significant as Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers,but in the opposite direction of course. It sends a signal to management private and public that the days of fat executive pay and thin or non existent worker benefits are almost over.
It is sad but not totally unexpected to see the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001 are so quickly forgotten when issuses of compensation for public safety workers are on the table. These visiting Mayors need to be reminded that the primary function of their governments ought to be the safety of its citizens. Mayors ought to be brought up to speed on the need to staff fire and police for their day to day mission and also to prepare for catastrophes. Minimum manning for firefighters is the paramount issue here. This is the issue which has brought the firefighters to the picket lines. The public should be grateful to both the firefighters and the Obama Administration for making their safety a priority.

Posted by: Phil at June 14, 2009 1:22 PM

I think this was a plan by Cicilline. I think it was intentional to draw support to himself. I don't think he expected the Obama Administration to back out. At that point he had to demonize the Firefighters. The Projo jumped on board as usual. The sad part is the union has offered many concessions to help the city but that does not get any hype. Also the other Mayors became victims of his plan and lost out on getting to meet the new administration. He would have saved money for the taxpayers along time ago. If in the beginning he had asked for some small concessions. He most likely would have gotten them.

Posted by: JustaThought at June 14, 2009 2:05 PM

"a change in policy towards labor which has favored the weathly and not the worker for so many years. Finally Washington is standing up for workers."

Would that be the "wealthy" taxpayers of Elmwood, South Providence, Olnyville and Washington Heights? Yeah, those homeowners and tenants (who socialists don't think pay property taxes) have really been sticking it to the firefighters for years.

Posted by: George at June 14, 2009 2:48 PM

Andrew - Here's why the Journal used "intimidating". The FF protest is not "intimidating" to you or I. However, if you are a Democratic office holder, it is intimidating in an electoral sense. Organized labor is perceived as being able to add an additional level of difficulty to a campaign, something few, if any, candidates want to deal with. The "intimidation" works this way, then: FF - support us, and we will not hinder, and maybe even help, your re-election. Defy us, and we will make you pay at the polls.

Posted by: John Blutarsky at June 14, 2009 3:43 PM

"Finally Washington is standing up for workers."

Apparently, some "workers" are more equal than others. Unions are not the same as workers. Workers are the people who pay taxes. They involuntarily support the largess that the unions coerce politicians into giving them. How about the convention center, hotel, tourism, and restaurant workers who rely on the expenditures of people who attend these events? How about the private sector workers drowning in taxes to support unsustainable public sector salaries, benefits, and pensions?

The last thing the firefighters saga has to do with is safety, so give that canard a rest. It has to do with them wanting to maintain the status quo, because it rewards them handsomely at the public's expense.

I saw one of their signs which refers to themselves as "second class citizens." If only they could see how foolish and badly that comes off when a regular person who is actually struggling to make ends meet see them. Maybe they really don't know how good they have it.

Posted by: Will at June 14, 2009 3:48 PM

Will, define a "regular person."

Therin lies the problem. Who gets what, who earns more, who deserves better...it will never end.

There is no private sector for public safety. Our pay and benefits are in line with electritians, plumbers, carpenters and nurses.

We do a little better than some, not as well as others.

Its just the way it is. We have a difficult enough time maintaining middle class wages and benefits. Times are tough right now, that is understood. When times were excellent, such as the economic boom in the ninties nobody cared that public saftey officers were on the bottom of the middle class. We didn't care either, that's just the way it is.

Maintaining the middle in an up and down world is all it is.

Posted by: michael at June 14, 2009 4:23 PM

Neither group looked the least intimidating.Just some healthy 1st amendment exercise.The 1st amendment was primarily about political speech to begin with.
Phil-I was a member of a Federal emplyees union when the controllers were fired.I didn't know any of my fellow union members who supported them.We were in public safety jobs also and the notion of striking was out of the question.We had grievances like the refusal of the Justice Dept. to spring for body armor for many years.And the refusal to provide TB testing and hepatitis shots.It took an agent's death to start that ball rolling.
The point is we worked within the rules we were hired under.

Posted by: joe bernstein at June 14, 2009 4:29 PM

Something needs to be done to give our national Democrats some backbone because this "labor, right or wrong" position is only going to alienate the real progressive Democrats - our nation's mayors, who are innovating at the local level every day without much help from the national party. Hey, Cicilline is head of the Democratic Mayors, who's got his back, Joe Biden?

Posted by: KG at June 14, 2009 6:38 PM

I don't fault the firefighters for protesting, nor do I fault Cicilline for crossing the lines.
I do fault Cicilline for blowing this all out of proportion. He took what would've been just a local protest and tried to go Chicago '68 on it.
If not for the mayor's misapplied machismo, much of this embarassment could've been avoided.

Posted by: rhody at June 14, 2009 6:52 PM

George Elbow, where are you?

Posted by: Tom Kenney at June 14, 2009 7:48 PM

Who cares?

Posted by: EMT at June 15, 2009 2:14 PM
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