Cassidy Tough, Brassy, Surprisingly Effective

Chief Leader - September 28, 2016

by RICHARD STEIER

Steve Cassidy left his post as Uniformed Firefighters Association president pretty much the same way he came in more than 14 years ago: with his chin out and his head high.

He attracted attention during his initial campaign for the job to which he was later re-elected four consecutive times by stressing what one FDNY critic last week labeled to as “that phony statue issue,” referring to his leading the charge against a planned statue outside the department’s Metro­Tech headquarters that depicted the three Firefighters who raised an American flag at Ground Zero the day after 9/11 as white, black and Latino when in fact all three had been white. Critics of his position—myself included—said that depiction shouldn’t have been an issue since it symbolized the losses all three groups had suffered during the FDNY’s rescue efforts, rather than the inspired sense of public relations that led the three firefighters to re-enact the scene from Iwo Jima during World War II.

Mr. Cassidy defended that position last week as something that wasn’t so much a politically-popular move in appealing to what was then an overwhelmingly white rank and file but rather a protest that after developer Bruce Ratner proposed the multi-racial depiction, “management was jamming something down the union’s face, and the union [leadership] did nothing. Within a week after then-Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta said ‘we will never take the statue down,’ we had gotten it stopped. That wasn’t about race; it was about pushback and knowing how to use the media.”

Fear, Envy Factors in Forced Exit

He made those remarks two days after the stunning 9-1 vote by the UFA board Sept. 19 to have him immediately step down as president, rather than doing so just before his scheduled Nov. 1 arrival at the Fire Pension Fund as its Executive Director. More than a few people who know the history involved in that switch regard the uproar as another case of unwarranted outrage, with the motive this time being fear among many of the board members about unfounded suspicions within the rank and file about his leaving the union for a management position that is likely to pay a bit above $200,000 a year.

“Some guys just don’t like that he got a good job,” one veteran official from another union said, scoffing at the claims on a firefighter website that his position running the newly independent Fire Pension Fund was a payoff for being too compliant with the de Blasio administration on the terms of last year’s UFA contract and the new disability-benefit upgrade signed into law earlier this month by Governor Cuomo.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the labor-relations field who believes Mr. Cassidy made a bad deal on either aspect of those negotiations. The general consensus was he made a good move in reluctantly agreeing to the same wage hikes that other uniformed unions had previously accepted and focusing his energy on improvements in two other key areas: the disability upgrade for newer Firefighters and the regaining of key rights on staffing that the Bloomberg administration took away five years ago.

But suspicions run deep in firehouse kitchens, and Mr. Cassidy said it was likely that his board members, with next year’s elections less than six months away, were determined to get out in front of the angry whispers by pushing him out the door rather than showing the respect that his tenure in office and his achievement on the disability upgrade for post-2009 hires merited.

As a result of last year’s pact, he noted, “We got increased staffing [on 20 engine companies], staffing guarantees locked in from what’s in our contract, and we got three-quarters.” Even on the pay raises that adhered to the uniformed pattern of 11-percent hikes over seven years, he noted there had been no delay in the first-year raise for his members while the earlier uniformed-coalition deal came with “11 months of zeroes” before the initial pay hike was implemented.

Narrow Approval a Shock

But, he noted, it was also true that even after the fear among Firefighters that agreei­ng to those terms would leave them looking foolish if the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association did better in arbitration prompted him to postpone a contract vote for two months and the police union got stuck with the uniformed pattern, his membership still barely ratified his deal providing those important extras.

He made the case to his rank and file last year that even if the PBA got a better deal in arbitration—which Mr. Cassidy was convinced wouldn’t happen—its structure might actually work to the UFA’s disadvantage, as had been the case under a 2005 PBA pay award that forced the union to make greater concessions to match its two 5-percent raises.

The reaction he got, he said, was, “‘We don’t care.’

“The younger members that we represent across the city—and this isn’t just Firefighters—don’t read the literature we send ’em,” he said. In fact, that has been something labor leaders have been lamenting for decades, and keeping Firefighters satisfied with their contracts has been a chronic problem that used to make it a rarity that a UFA president could win re-election.

Patience Over Pride

It may have been a lesson learned through his longevity in office that, rather than suffer the same fate as some predecessors whose deals got undermined by internal critics only to have the union wind up with less-palatable contract terms in arbitration, he postponed the vote until the PBA award confirmed his judgment that the unexciting pay raises were the best that realistically could be gotten and that the other gains were what made his pact worth embracing.

He had actually inherited a similar situation upon becoming UFA president in the spring of 2002. His predecessor, Kevin Gallagher, a year earlier had agreed to terms as part of a uniformed coalition that also didn’t include the PBA providing two 5-percent raises over a 30-month period. That deal was awaiting final ratification by UFA members when 9/11 hit, devastating the Fire Department through both the 343 lives it lost and the emotional toll that took on those who remained. Nine months later, no action had been taken on the pact, and Mr. Cassidy decided in that case to recommend rejection of the terms in order to wait on the police-union arbitration.

“We had the strong feeling the PBA would get the same deal without the six months of zeroes, and we would get the same thing” once that happened, he explained.

It reportedly took some quiet intervention by then-Gov. George Pataki to move the PBA arbitration-panel chairman away from a plan to honor the coalition pattern at the urging of the Bloom­berg administration, but ultimately that award provided the two 5-percent raises plus other fringe-benefit gains in a 24-month deal, and the UFA secured the same terms. It was an early win for Mr. Cassidy, but his days of deferring to the PBA ended with that union’s 2005 arbitration award. Three years later, he stepped away from a uniformed coalition to accept city terms that made sense for his members and undercut the PBA’s case in yet another arbitration.

Never Mr. Popularity

He didn’t endear himself to some leaders of the coalition he abruptly left without a heads-up, as well as frustrating PBA President Pat Lynch, with whom he’d worked closely when he first assumed office. But Mr. Cassidy never wanted to be the most-popular guy in the room. In fact, what was notable about his first campaign for office besides the battle over the statue was the argument he made to members that both Mr. Lynch and then-United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten had their detractors as well as their supporters, but what marked them as good leaders was that they made their presence felt.

That was particularly important, he said, given the timing of his election, with the department having been depleted not only by the losses on 9/11, but by the wave of retirements over the next couple of years. Both the greater sense of mortality instilled in those who survived and the huge amounts of overtime they piled up because of staffing shortages led to the retirement and promotion of many senior Firefighters, as those in higher ranks also left to take advantage of the impact the extra work had on their pensions.

“It really transformed the job,” he said.

There were other residual effects that sorted themselves out. Nick Scoppetta, a veteran city official with no background in firefighting, had been chosen by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be his Fire Commissioner, and Mr. Cassidy said he had the impression that some of the remaining chief officers in the FDNY convinced Mr. Bloom­berg that his lack of seasoning on the UFA board made him a potential patsy and the Mayor could “roll him.”

Residency Roulette

During their first meeting, he said, Mr. Bloomberg raised the issue of Firefighters living outside the five boroughs and the six neighboring suburban counties in which residency was permitted under the Public Officers Law, suggesting a crackdown would be coming. Mr. Cassidy said he responded, “I have a list of 100 Chiefs in the Fire Department who live outside New York and the six contiguous counties—you won’t fire any of my guys unless you fire those Chiefs first.”

That backed off Mr. Bloom­berg, he said, although no such list existed, but the face-off proved one thing to him, Mr. Cassidy said: “Everybody’s trying to get over on everybody else.” He also balked at a change in work schedules under which all Firefighters would have been assigned to 24-hour tours. Such tours are commonly arranged through “mutuals,” under which Firefighters trade tours with colleagues to get days off for personal reasons, but the flexibility that system affords them would have been lost if “24s” became the norm.

Drinking had long been part of firehouse culture; one department legend involved one of its most-revered commanders stopping in a Manhattan firehouse after a particularly tough blaze a half-century ago, dropping a quarter in the soda machine and being stunned and angered when a beer was dispensed. But when one Firefighter almost killed a colleague in a Staten Island firehouse on New Year’s Eve in 2003, and their colleagues, led by the commanding officer, tried to cover up the origin of the second one’s head injuries, the fallout prompted Mr. Scoppetta to toughen up the rules against drinking on duty, which prompted another clash with the UFA.

Avoidable-Death Fury

There would be other angry reactions from the union that were far more justifiable: the loss of two Firefighters (with a third succumbing years later to a medication overdose that was a product of the severe injuries he had suffered) in the Black Sunday fire in The Bronx in 2005 in which Firefighters had no good means of escape because of the decision five years earlier by then-Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen to do away with personal-safety ropes because of underutilization.

Mr. Cassidy remains even more incensed by the death of two other Firefighters two years later in the Deutsche Bank fire in lower Manhattan, close by the World Trade Center site. “Beyond the fact that we lost two guys, 100 saved their lives by jumping onto scaffolding in a contaminated building,” he said. There was no source of water to fight the blaze because a standpipe had been cut weeks earlier, which went un­noticed because the department had ceased inspecting the building, apparently on orders from someone high up in the Bloomberg administration looking to get it demolished to speed new construction on the site.

“I went to the trial,” Mr. Cassidy recalled. “The defense attorney [for one of the three men criminally charged] stood up and said, ‘My client got fired 91 days before the Deutsche Bank fire.’ And I thought, how can somebody say something that wasn’t true? But it was true. They had the wrong people on trial.”

‘A Disgrace’

The fact that conditions at the building had been allowed to deteriorate so greatly because of the lack of inspections and that those most responsible weren’t brought to justice, Mr. Cassidy said, was “a disgrace. It will be looked at 100 years from now as the two most-needless deaths in the department’s history.”

He called for Mr. Scoppetta’s resignation in the aftermath of the fire, and that wasn’t the only time. There was some feeling that the UFA leader was merely indulging a longtime political truism in the FDNY: that blasting its leaders was the best way to keep your rank and file from focusing their anger on your own shortcomings. But Mr. Cassidy said he believed he had more staying power than his predecessors in large part because he was responsive to his members and made a point of getting out into the field to hear their complaints and didn’t ignore dissidents at union meetings who challenged him.

“I walked in firehouses every week, mostly unannounced,” he said. “I didn’t expect my members to always agree with me, but they never asked a question where I didn’t have an answer. It’s a lot of work, but I always believed that was the way to lead. I walked into firehouses and I would hear many times, ‘I’ve never seen the president of the union.’ There’s nothing better than a face-to-face and an off-the-record q. and a.”

‘Make-Believe Claims’

He said union meetings, which prior to his taking office had sometimes lasted for three hours, often ran for less than 45 minutes in recent years because of his willingness to respond to those making accusations of union neglect. Rather than walking away when dissidents made outlandish charges, Mr. Cassidy said, he was willing to stand in and rebut them. “It stopped the make-believe criticism,” he said, because his determination to respond meant the critics risked being embarrassed if the charges they raised were baseless.

That view of his presidency is not shared by some veteran members of the department. One senior Firefighter said a reluctance to share information with the membership created some of the distrust that produced the outcry over Mr. Cassidy’s taking the job heading the Fire Pension Fund, even if there was nothing improper about the transition.

And Capt. Paul Washington, a former head of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, while giving Mr. Cassidy credit on some issues, said he could never quite get over “how he came to be elected.”

Scoffing at his claim that the statue controversy was about labor/management prerogatives, Mr. Washington said in a Sept. 22 phone interview that he believed the driving factor was the UFA’s overwhelmingly white, politically-conservative membership at the time.

“In 400 years in this country, there’s been no more tried-and-true way of getting elected than by using race,” he said.

The Bush Brouhaha

His members’ conservatism was what allowed Mr. Cassidy in 2004 to endorse President George W. Bush for re-election, and to do it at an Elks Lodge in Queens at a time when many of the city’s labor leaders had gathered outside Madison Square Garden to protest during the Republican National Convention.

“When we stuck our neck out on Bush, I got hate mail from other unions saying we had betrayed the International Association of Fire Fighters [which had endorsed Democratic challenger John Kerry],” Mr. Cassidy said. “But I always thought in New York, which is a Democratic town, if you don’t have Republican allies, you have made a critical mistake. We believe we do better in the [State] Senate when Republicans are in charge.”

And he lauded Congressman Peter King for his help on matters ranging from homeland-security funding for the Fire Department to his work in getting fellow Republicans to support the Zadroga Bill providing free health care to first-responders who were sickened by the toxic stew they breathed in during the months of searching for survivors at the Trade Center site.

In fact, Mr. Cassidy said, the political payoff for supporting Mr. Bush came a dec­ade ago in a battle over a state version of the Zadroga law—the World Trade Center presumptions bill, under which disability pensions are granted to first-responders who developed certain cancers after being at the site on 9/11 or in the days that followed under the presumption that it was that work that led to the diseases. He said a call by the President to then-Gov. George Pataki persuaded him to enact that bill over Mr. Bloomberg’s strenuous objections about its potential costs.

Slow to Mend Fences

But, he acknowledged, “I did not have good relations with the IAFF after the Bush thing. I don’t think it was my fault, but I could have done things to mend fences sooner, offer an olive branch.” He believes lingering hard feelings from the 2004 endorsement and its timing cost him several years ago when he ran for a regional IAFF vice presidency, losing to another UFA official, Bill Romaka. Mr. Romaka was recently defeated in his re-election bid by Jim Slevin, who replaced Mr. Cassidy as president last week after being the only member of the UFA board not to vote for forcing him out immediately.

Mr. Cassidy’s strong-willed personality has always been tempered by pragmatism. It helps explain why, in the pitched battle six years ago over the Federal lawsuit challenging the fairness of the Firefighter exam that was brought by the Vulcans and later joined by the Justice Department while Mr. Bush was still president, he adopted a conspicuously low profile.

Asked about his decision not to join vocal opposition, primarily by white firefighters, that was led by Deputy Chief Paul Mannix, Mr. Cassidy said that he had always questioned the importance the FDNY placed on the written exam and believed it made a mistake in relaxing standards on the physical test for the job. He noted that soon after he was first elected president, he had gone to high schools with large numbers of minority students—among them Boys and Girls, Martin Luther King, and his alma matter, Nazareth—talking about the advantages of joining the FDNY, and that he had long advocated that the department improve its minority representation through two approaches: return to rank-order scoring on the physical and “recruit athletes, recruit women athletes, recruit from the military. They did none of what I suggested. I think they were afraid we were gonna get sued by the women’s organizations. I know I don’t have any friends there.”

Saw Him As Obstacle

He isn’t wrong about that; some leading advocates for women in the FDNY believe he wanted a more-demanding physical test as a way of limiting their growth in the Firefighter ranks.

Mr. Cassidy said his only aim was, “Let the cream rise to the top.”

And the weakness of the city’s defense of the traditional written test as the best measure of future Firefighters became clear during the trial when U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis underscored the fact that the Emergency Medical Service Cadet program, under which those who entered the FDNY as EMTs were allowed to take a promotion exam for the job, were given preference in hiring to the degree that one of them who scored a 75 on that test would be hired before someone who got 95 on the open-competitive written test.

“They shouldn’t have started that,” the veteran UFA leader said of the Bloomberg administration’s defense of past written tests, which became especially heated after Judge Garaufis charged that it had perpetuated a situation in which the FDNY had long been “a stubborn bastion of white male privilege.”

“I didn’t think their defending the written test was the answer,” Mr. Cassidy said.

Captain Washington, who played a key role in the Vulcans’ bringing of the lawsuit challenging the 1999 and 2002 written tests, conceded that one area where he and the former UFA leader shared common ground was that “we both agreed that the written wasn’t that good an indicator of how good a Firefighter could be.”

‘Knew We Weren’t Losing’

He was reluctant to credit Mr. Cassidy, however, for showing a restraint he believed had been lacking in the battle over the statue years earlier in deciding not to be the loudest voice in the courtroom.

“There was no way we were gonna lose that lawsuit, and he knew that,” Mr. Washington said. “Cassidy was always realistic. To be a hard-charger in a case that the city was gonna lose wouldn’t have made much political sense.”

But, he added, “He had his achievements and he was good at what he did. His combative style served his members well.”

Mr. Cassidy’s personality led him to take on critics directly, but he also was willing to articulate his case to try to change their minds rather than lashing out.

The New York Post’s editorial positions are frequently in sync with his own, but it has long attacked employees who it believed were taking advantage of the system through benefits that the union had gained for them over the years. In 2009, using data supplied by the Bloom­berg administration, the paper ran a three-part series on those abuses whose centerpiece was a savaging of the Variable Supplements Fund, a $12,000-a-year benefit for retired cops and firefighters based on pension-system profits that the paper characterized as Christmas bonuses. Two years later, Mayor Bloomberg launched a legislative foray against the program, trying to convince Albany lawmakers to either abolish or discontinue it so that new hires would not be eligible.

Mr. Cassidy responded with a counter-offensive in tandem with Mr. Lynch aimed at convincing both the City Council and the State Legislature of the fallacies in the Mayor’s arguments. But the UFA leader also took his case directly to the Post editorial board, saying he told its members, “If the Mayor calls it a Christmas bonus, c’est la vie. But it ain’t.”

He was persuasive enough that the paper reversed itself and wrote an editorial supporting the VSF program. “To convince the leading voice on [reining in] pensions that we were right when the Bloomberg administration had them in their pocket, that was a proud moment,” he said.

Mr. Cassidy said he had also been determined not to let legislators’ opposition on a particular issue of importance to the union become a permanent declaration of hostilities. “I’ve always taken a global view,” he said. “I’ve never been, ‘If you aren’t with me on this issue, then we’re not supporting you after this.’”

That willingness to keep dialogues going played a key role in the union getting the disability upgrade this year after being thwarted by the Mayor’s opposition in the spring of 2015. Convinced that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito because of her alliance with the Mayor had improperly buried a home-rule message that should have been brought to a vote, the UFA filed a Freedom of Information Law request and pursued the matter in court in the wake of its bill not being acted on 15 months ago because the Assembly balked at passing it without the home-rule message.

Scrapped Suit, Got Bill

But when the Mayor’s chief negotiator, Bob Linn, last summer sought to complete a contract deal that would include a pledge of city support for the bill in this year’s legislative session, Mr. Cassidy was willing to shelve the lawsuit as a condition of getting the wage agreement along with backing for the home-rule message and the restoration of some engine-company staffing. In contrast, Mr. Lynch remains locked in a cold war with Mr. de Blasio that has him bound once again for arbitration and leading the one entry-level uniformed union that has not gotten the disability-benefit improvement for post-2009 hires.

The PBA has also opposed in court a health-benefits deal reached by the Municipal Labor Committee in the spring of 2014 that was aimed at saving the city $3.4 billion over seven years. Mr. de Blasio wanted to reduce the city’s health-care costs in any event, but he tied the deal to agreeing to the contract terms with the UFT that set the pattern for this bargaining round. Mr. Lynch, who in recent months obtained a temporary restraining order preventing any negative changes in his members’ health-care coverage from being imposed, has argued that the MLC did not have the authority to reach that deal on his behalf and objected to it being used to partly offset the cost of the pay raises.

Mr. Cassidy said he had misgivings at the time about the latter aspect of the deal because “I thought it was a bad precedent. But when the deal came out, I supported it because a lot of the changes were going to be accounting changes” that would not have an adverse effect on union members.

“But,” he added, “I was the one saying all along we’re going to have to do something to save the city money on health care without compromising our members, and I think that’s going to be an ongoing challenge for the MLC.”

Hard to Convince Members

One of the frustrations he has had as UFA president, he said, is that his members don’t fully understand how expensive their health-care coverage and pensions have become and the impact this has in limiting the money available for wage increases. He said that at the time he became president in 2002, the union’s security benefit fund, which includes prescription-drug coverage, was nearly bankrupt.

“Guys didn’t realize what the cost of drugs are; they still don’t,” Mr. Cassidy said. “We put in real changes that tamped down utilization and brought real savings. We have a finite amount of money and we have to manage it.”

Even with the modest raises under the current contract that don’t figure to keep pace with inflation, he said that he had been able to raise members’ pay by 74.7 percent during his tenure, and that some of the complaints that came about the contract even after the PBA was unable to do better in arbitration “may not be reality-based,” given the other benefits that have increasingly strained the city’s budget.

On the other hand, he said, there’s the growing number of members who were at the Trade Center for long periods starting with 9/11 whose health has begun to deteriorate as a result of their exposure. Speaking of the toll ta­ken, Mr. Cassidy said, “It’s horrible. It’s a constant, constant drumbeat. It’s horrible to watch people suffer and to hear of how diminished they are.”

‘We Knew Air Was Unsafe’

Regarding then-U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Todd Whitman’s recent apology for assuring people at the time that the air at Ground Zero was safe to breathe when she didn’t actually know that to be the case, Mr. Cassidy said he didn’t believe she had given his members a false sense of security that led them to be less careful about protecting themselves.

“I don’t think any firefighters thought the air was safe,” he said. “We did the job because we thought it was important. The ironworkers came marching down the West Side with their masks on,” while firefighters were forced to rely on paper masks supplied by the Giuliani administration that were too thin to offer real protection but also made communicating difficult, leading many not to wear them.

“The cancers are up,” he said. “The good news is the health care is permanent through ‘Zadroga.’” The FDNY’s top doctors over the past 15 years, David Prezant and Kerry Kelly, are “like two saints. They’re tough, but the fire service is blessed.”

Soon after he became president, Mr. Cassidy immersed himself in the work of the Fire Pension Fund, saying he had initially known little about the investment side of its operations. “I took a keen interest—how they do it, what the process is. There are pension challenges all across America, not just Detroit.”

Six years ago Mr. Bloom­berg and then-City Comptroller John C. Liu pushed for consolidation of the five funds to both save on administrative costs and have a Chief Pension Officer appointed who could speed the decision-making process on investments. The move foun­dered after a couple of civilian-union presidents objected for reasons that included Mr. Liu not informing them of the plan until the morning that he announced it. Mr. Cassidy said he supported the move, and still would, because “we don’t move quickly enough. I described it at the time as trying to turn the Queen Mary around in the Hudson River, where by the time you do it, you might find yourself heading in the wrong direction.”

‘They’ll Have an Ally’

He takes pride that “since I’ve been president, not one single Firefighter has had his pension downgraded; we’ve had dozens and dozens of cases where they were upgraded.” Rebutting the suspicions voiced about his leaving the union to run the fund, he invoked his NYPD Lieutenants-union counterpart who made the same transition nine years ago, saying, “When Tony Garvey took that job, nobody complained among the police unions. Firefighters are going to find they’ve got an ally.”

Mr. Cassidy said the difficult fight to get the contract ratified last year had prompted him to think “maybe it’s time for somebody else,” and he had been undecided about whether to seek a sixth term when nominations are held for UFA offices next February. It was last month, he said, that Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro asked whether he would be interested in running the pension fund, and while Mr. Cassidy said he expressed interest, when it was offered to him Sept. 15, “I was very surprised.”

Referring to leading the UFA, he said, “There’s parts of this job that I’m going to miss. I like the politics; I like communicating with the media on issues relating to Firefighters. But you can get worn down.”

Two days earlier, a few hours before his board let him know that a speedy departure was what they wanted, Mr. Cassidy summed up the mood this way: “After 14 years of leading the union, there are people that just don’t like me, and that’s okay.”