NEW YORK—The war of words over the transit strike took an ugly turn after Mayor Michael Bloomberg described union heads as “thuggish,” a remark some said was racist in the context of a predominantly black union. During his first briefing on the strike Tuesday at City Hall, Bloomberg complained that union leaders had “thuggishly turned their backs on New York City and disgraced the noble concept of public service.”
A group of City Council members and black leaders said Wednesday that Bloomberg’s comment was racist because it was directed at leaders of a union that is less than 30 percent white.
“We resent the idea that you would characterize a predominantly black and Latino union as a bunch of thugs,” said City Councilman Charles Barron.
Ed Skyler, the mayor’s spokesman, replied: “It’s despicable to inject race into this situation.”
Bloomberg has no official role in the labor negotiations, since city subways and buses are managed by the state Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But he is responsible for keeping New York running during the shutdown of the nation’s largest transit system.
The Rev. Herbert Daughtry, an influential black minister, said the mayor, governor and MTA leaders were risking comparisons to Eugene “Bull” Connor. The Birmingham, Ala., segregationist police commissioner turned fire hoses and police dogs on black civil rights marchers in 1963.
Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint stopped short of joining the accusations of racism, but said Wednesday that the “thuggish” remark showed the mayor’s “lack of respect” for his members.
“We wake up at three and four in the morning to move trains in this town,” Toussaint said. “That’s not the behavior of thugs and selfish people.”