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Wake-up call



If drones could hover over the conscience of the city, as they did over the Labor Day parade earlier this month, the surveillance report would be scandalous. It would show that the city's professed respect for its workers is not so indubitable, and the appearance of affinity is calculated for public consumption.

The sad truth is that it often takes drawn-out costly litigation and a final court rebuff after the exhaustion of appeals for the city to yield to fairness in paying employees anything close to what they're worth. There can be no harmony when even-handedness must be compelled. Goodwill is not fueled by coercion.

The FDNY fire protection inspectors will each receive at least $30,000 from a $29 million lawsuit settlement that persuasively alleged that their pay was significantly lower than that of Department of Buildings employees doing similar work. It was shown that the shortchanged group were predominantly persons of color and the better compensated workers were white.

The case was strong and likely to prevail, even without the racial angle being raised. Doing so has become almost obligatory to maximize the prospect of a favorable outcome in many adversarial situations, whether or not they are indirectly implicated in the merits of the case.  Nonetheless, even if the gap between the salaries of the two job titles was not by design, it cannot be viewed as incidental. It is common practice to oversubscribe with ingredients the recipe for a legal victory in order to taste justice.

The settlement, though sweet, does not offset the ancillary outrage of low pay for all the FDNY fire protection inspectors. We are often told that "you get what you pay for" and that pay is linked to skills, responsibility and market value of services. Only when it suits management and as a theoretical construct. 

Consider the following excerpt from the official announcement of duties and required background prior to hiring:

The applicants must have at least three years of satisfactory full-time experience in such areas as "design, installation, operation, repair, testing or inspection of fire suppression, alarm and/or extinguishing systems and fuel oil heating systems.”

Shouldn't that be enough to warrant these workers a marginal middle-class existence? But there's more. The fire protection inspectors must also masterfully deal with "formulation, enforcement or implementation of safety standards … in the manufacture and/or storage of potential fire hazards" and perform inspections to assure "compliance with fire and building codes.”

They must additionally produce documentation of accredited college preparation and background in fire science technology, which includes chemistry, environmental and electrical engineering, construction technology and police science. Aspirants may also have participated in a union-sponsored apprenticeship in plumbing or gas appliance installation.

That's heavy-duty credentials. They shouldn't have to plead for a sturdy wrung on the pay scale ladder. 

The next time I hear that compensation packages are linked to skills, training, experience and, above all, accountability at personal risk, I will don a ski mask and go non-violently ape-shit. It's the little guys who bear the brunt of poor outcomes.  

Supervisors should be forced to demonstrate mastery  of all the tasks on which the performance of their subordinates depend. If not, they should be ineligible for their positions and be paid a training rate to reclaim their perch on a civil-service list.

The verifiable and unambiguous fact that the salaries for FDNY and Department of Buildings workers with similar duties is starkly different is not enough, apparently, to sustain an argument for their equalization. Introducing the racial dimension as a clincher was necessary for good measure. That's a pity. The pay gap was not due to racial considerations. But the salary structures turned out that way, so whether or not it was conscious is moot. The divergence must be erased.

The phrase "playing the race card" is almost always used in a context that implies unearned preferential treatment achieved through intimidation. The phrase should be retired. The focus should be refreshed.

Not long ago, a jury awarded more than 2,500 EMTs almost $18 million over their wildly out-of-sync pay scale relative to other FDNY personnel. The disparity simply doesn't add up, despite the job title not being the same. Almost all the higher paid were white; the lower, people of color.   

Some years ago, the city was dead set on a mass firing of comparatively low-paid school paraprofessionals but changed their mind over the bad optics of most of the valuable educators being people of color. This pattern is called "occupational segregation.”  

It's encouraging that, according to the AFL-CIO, a spectacular majority of Americans of all ages and both parties are pro-union: more than 90 percent of Democrats, two-thirds of independents, and 70 percent of all Americans. That includes almost 90 percent of young adults and even a curiously hefty cross-section of the Grand Ossified Party. 

A dormant militancy in the general population has at least one eye open. Almost 75 percent of Americans support workers' rights to go on strike and share our fear of the encroachment and weaponization of "artificial intelligence" in the workplace.

Many non-unionized workers are a bit jealous of those of us somewhat insulated from the arbitrary and unchecked misuse of employer authority. For them, wage theft is routine, especially in restaurants, where they are treated like exploited children. Management often appropriates their tips, punitively schedules employees who complain, and menace undocumented workers about their being reported to federal immigration authorities if they don't heel.

The best waitress at my local diner, who worked there for decades and helped her employer keep much business they might otherwise have lost, was allowed to go on a short vacation. Unpaid and begrudged.

A recent article in The Guardian details a major triumph in the form of a National Labor Relations Board ruling "that will make unionization easier at firms that break the law while resisting organizing campaigns. The new framework means companies that are found to have committed illegal acts during unionization election efforts will be forced to immediately bargain with a union, rather than just have to run the election again — which is what happened previously.”

The best way to gauge and illustrate the promise of the NLRB ruling is this direct quotation from the union-busting Morgan Lewis law firm ( they prefer "avoidance" to "busting"): "This decision is of a different magnitude and impact. Employers would be well-advised to immediately consider and engage on what the decision means for their organizations — and how they plan to respond.”

We have an arsenal, and we are not pacifists. Antagonists take heed. And take cover.

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