THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Scared off by union picket signs

By Joan Vennochi
June 18, 2009
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ONE UNHAPPY band of firefighters and the Obama White House folds.

Vice President Joseph Biden and members of President Obama’s Cabinet shunned a meeting of the nation’s mayors in Providence last weekend because of a labor protest staged by local firefighters. It was the first time in the nearly 80-year history of the US Conference of Mayors that a presidential administration chose to boycott the event.

Mayors from across the country - including many Democrats like Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino - crossed the informational picket line to attend the event. But, more than 100 federal officials pulled out because of the protest organized by Local 799 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The union wanted to embarrass Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, a Democrat, who is stuck in the middle of a decade-long dispute between the city and its firefighters. In doing so, the union also showcased a Democratic White House succumbing to the oldest bit of labor theater - a noisy line of terminally aggrieved workers.

“This is not a boycott by a political candidate or a political party. It is a boycott by an entire government. And it is a terrible mistake,’’ Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, the outgoing president of the mayors’ conference, told colleagues in a Saturday address.

The Obama administration is more indebted to labor than to Diaz, a Democrat turned independent who endorsed Obama in 2008.

Healthcare reform, an Obama priority, needs labor support. Union-backed advocacy groups are poised to make the case for the president’s plan to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system.

As both a presidential candidate and as vice president, Biden has also made it clear that he will always strive to be the firefighters union’s best friend. He has spoken many times about the kinship he feels toward firefighters, who helped save the lives of his two sons many years ago as well as his own when he suffered an aneurysm in 1988.

What does this mean over the life of the Obama administration?

In announcing the Providence retreat, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said administration officials won’t cross picket lines, ever.

That empowers any local union, anywhere, to stop any official Obama envoy from attending any event. The president of the United States reaches out to the world, unless a picket line stands between him and his teleprompter.

“I think it was a calculated decision, made by the administration. It’s a decision I wouldn’t have made,’’ said Menino.

According to Menino, the long-running contract dispute in Providence is “well along in the negotiating stage. They’ll have a contract soon.’’

So, the picket line was pure show designed to undercut the Providence mayor at what should have been a moment of civic pride.

“This was Providence’s big moment,’’ said Menino. “It was supposed to show that a middle-sized city could run a nice convention with the decision-makers of America.’’

As Menino points out, mayors are routinely locked in unpleasant labor disputes.

In 2004, John Kerry, then the Democratic presumptive nominee, refused to cross a picket line set up by the union that represents Boston police and canceled a speech to that year’s mayors conference. The labor dispute embarrassed Menino and threatened to keep Kerry out of his own convention.

Menino is currently battling Boston’s local firefighters union over the issue of mandatory drug testing. The union is endorsing an opponent, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, in the current mayor’s race.

As a consolation prize, the Obama administration is talking about inviting the mayors to the White House on June 29. “I can’t go,’’ said Menino. “It’s my budget time. I don’t know if other mayors will go. They’re all on tight budgets.’’

The mayors wanted a chance to sit down with federal officials and talk about the economic stimulus plan. Instead, the chief executives who are on the front lines of the country’s economic crisis were put on the back burner.

Labor had its usual way with a Democratic president who promised change.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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