THE POLICE STRIKE
During the bitter cold winter of January 1971 the unthinkable happened. The police officers of the New York City Police Department walked out in a "wildcat"
The strike caught everyone by surprise. The cops themselves had not planned the action, nor had their PBA representatives recommended such a move.
The strike resulted from the pent-up frustrations that the cops had been forced to endure for many months. The issue that drove the police to such an extreme action was the so-called "Parity Issue".
The pay "parity" that existed between the different ranks of the police department meant that for every dollar that a patrolman received in salary, the succeeding ranks received a differential pay
increase. The pay scales that the police department received had become tied to the pay scales of the fire department.
The City had created a situation under which both of these emergency services would negotiate at the same time and similar contracts would be awarded for the two services. The same "parity" concept existed between the two departments. However, there was a problem.
The first-line supervisor on the police department or first rank up from that of patrolman was the rank of sergeant.
The next rank was lieutenant. The fire department first-line supervisor was the rank of lieutenant. The rank of lieutenant on the fire department had the same civil service pay scale as sergeant of police. Therefore, they should have been paid the same parity pay. The fire lieutenants had negotiated and received greater pay parity for their rank than the police sergeants had received. This caused the Sergeant's Benevolent Association to go to court to fight for "parity" with the fire lieutenants. The Sergeant's Benevolent Association was led by one of the most capable labor leaders that ever held the office of president of that police organization. Sergeant Harold Melnick served in that position during my career when I was a sergeant. He led the SBA into court on this issue. The sergeants could not have asked for a better leader.
This news was welcomed by the rank and file of the police department because a victory in court on the "parity issue" would award the police sergeants a pay increase that would be retroactive to
the last contract. It involved a substantial amount of back pay.
The patrolmen would be awarded a similar back pay award because the pay parity issue would raise their pay also. Remember that the parity had to remain between both ranks. For every dollar that the sergeants received, the patrolmen had to receive a salary that reflected the "parity ratio" between the ranks. The firefighters would also benefit from such a decision on the courts because they would get the same raise as the cops.
The lower courts had ruled in favor of the SBA. In New York State, the lower court in such important civil matters is the "Supreme Court". The first step in any appeal went to the
"appellate division court" for review.
The final step was an appeal to the highest court in the State, the New York State Court of Appeals. The City of New York appealed the decision of the Supreme Court to the Appellate Division. That Court affirmed the decision of the Supreme Court. The sergeants and cops were ecstatic. It appeared that the Sergeant's Benevolent Association under the able leadership of Sergeant Harold Melnick would win on the issue of parity in the courts.
The sergeants and the cops started to "count their chickens before they hatched". Many of the cops, including myself, did some quick calculating and figured we were owed thousands of dollars
in back pay.
I was a thirty-one year old husband and father of three children. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island. We lived over my wife's aunt who was a piano teacher. We made a lot of noise at times and I knew that we had to buy a house somehow. I drove a taxicab for a while, but the expenses of a growing family left little for savings. Also, back in those early days of the '70s the prices of homes were skyrocketing on Staten Island. When the Verrazano Bridge opened in 1964, many people from Brooklyn fled to the safer neighborhoods of Staten Island. The demand for housing outstripped the supply. The prices soared for years. It seemed impossible to save enough money for a down payment.
The level of frustration that a person feels is in direct proportion to how close he or she gets to the goal that is sought.
When victory is snatched away at the last second, that person feels extreme frustration at the loss of the perceived reward.
We all thought that the SBA lawsuit would be reaffirmed by the highest court in
We were sadly mistaken. It was no accident that the decision came down in the dead of winter. The frustrated cops of the NYPD had endured many months of waiting for a ruling by the courts. When the SBA lawsuit was reversed by the Court of Appeals, the news flashed over the radio to the precincts. It was January 14, 1971.
I was scheduled to perform a late tour that night.
I reported for duty to the 123rd Precinct. I noticed a lot of patrol cars parked all over the sidewalks in front of the precinct. When I walked into the muster room, I saluted the flag behind the desk and noticed that the stationhouse was filled with cops. Something was wrong. The entire third platoon was off the street and milling around the stationhouse. Tommy Hennessy grabbed me and whispered that the cops in the precincts all over the city had refused to go on patrol in protest over the parity decision. Nobody was on patrol answering the radio calls. I ran upstairs to the locker room. The other late tour cops were in animated conversation about the "strike". My partner, Angelo Pisani came upstairs and we exchanged a few thoughts. When we heard that the entire third platoon of the 123rd Precinct had joined in the "wildcat strike", we knew that we had to back them up. No way would we betray them. We knew that if we went on patrol, the jobs of those men would be jeopardized.
The cops that took part in the walkout were risking a lot. Eddie Linder, John Fawcett, "Blackjack" Palmer, Frank Barton, Lenny Buono, Walter Jones, and Charlie Corona were veterans of World
Bill Haas, Gene Stroh, Jake Kissinger, Tony Borruso and Ray Canlon were old-timers too. Younger cops like Irwin Rutman, Georgie Cialino, Tom Napier, Dave Hunter, Jim Higgins, Don Kaminski, and Harry Roschbach had a lot to lose too. They all knew the consequences of such a strike. The newly enacted "Taylor Law" had specifically forbidden job actions by police officers.
The Taylor Law was read to the troops by the sergeants and lieutenants. Section 210 of the New York State Civil Service Law was titled: Prohibition of strikes.
It read: "No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike." That meant that the Patrolman's Benevolent Association would be in violation of this law if the officers of PBA condoned or encouraged the strike. The penalties for violating this law were severe. Two days pay for each day in violation. The PBA would be liable to heavy fines that could deplete the financial assets of the police union. The cops who participated in the "wildcat walkout" were on their own. The PBA could not support them officially in their actions. Each police officer knew that a career was at risk. Yet, they stood together as never before.
We changed into our uniforms and went downstairs to the sitting room. The cops from the third platoon went upstairs to change.
The sergeants and lieutenant were huddled together behind the main desk in the muster room and it seemed like every phone was ringing. The telephone switchboard operator was yanking the trunk lines as he tried to keep up with the calls to the command. We huddled around the sitting room copy of the roll call. We took our assignments down and entered them into our memo books. Then, we sat down at the large table in the middle of the sitting room and waited. I looked around the room at the other guys. Richie Potts, Nick Silvestro and his partner Sal Rinaudo seemed as concerned as I was. Meanwhile, the cops from the third platoon who had changed their clothes stood around the room to see what transpired.
"Fall in!" ordered the patrol sergeant. We fell into two ranks and stood roll call.
The sergeant called the roll and we were instructed on our posts. The contents of the Taylor Law were solemnly read out to the assembled platoon. He then asked each of us individually whether we intended to go on patrol. Each and every man responded in the negative. The sergeant made entries on the roll call and left us. I noticed the trace of an admiring smile on the face of the sergeant as he turned away from the rows of cops.
We later learned the reason for this. They wanted to document the refusal of each patrolman. That refusal would constitute a violation of the Taylor Law. The mass refusal was repeated in
every precinct in the City of New York that night.
The platoons of cops that reported to their commands, changed into their uniforms, and stood ready to respond to emergencies informed their supervisors
that they would respond to serious crimes and incidents during the job action, but would return to the precincts afterwards. No routine patrol duties would be performed.
The Department was quick to
respond to the job action. They cancelled all days off for supervisors and other members of the Department.
The sergeants and detectives of the precincts manned a few patrol cars to maintain coverage. Fortunately for them, the weather was extremely cold and the incidence of crime was very low.
"wildcat strike" lasted for five days.
In the end, we won. The Parity pay issue was settled in our favor. We were fined two days pay for each of the five days of the strike, but police officers and firefighters realized a large pay increase with back pay.
Were it not for that parity pay issue and the "wildcat strike', I would not have been able to finance the purchase of my home.
I owe the roof over my head to those police officers that risked their fortunes by standing up with each other on that cold night so long ago. Many of those cops are no longer with us. I salute their memory.
Copyright © 2000 Edward D. Reuss
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