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Biden Skipping Mayors' Event Because Of Picket Line

BEN FELLER   06/ 5/09 09:40 PM ET   AP

Mideast Lebanon Biden

WASHINGTON — Steering clear of a messy labor dispute, the White House on Friday said Vice President Joe Biden and other members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet have scrapped plans to attend a national mayors' conference in Rhode Island rather than cross a picket line of local firefighters.

In a statement to The Associated Press, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration will redouble its efforts to work with the nation's mayors in other ways. That includes a fresh invitation for the mayors to come to the White House.

But for now, the list of premier guests at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Providence, R.I., next week just got a lot shorter.

Even as the White House was announcing its decision, the mayoral group's Web site promoted that its confirmed guests included Biden, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Attorney General Eric Holder, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and other administration officials.

None of them now plan to attend.

"Unfortunately, because of circumstances surrounding the conference, administration officials will not be participating in this year's meeting," Gibbs said.

Those circumstances are a years-long conflict between the Providence mayor, David Cicilline, and local firefighters over contract matters. Cicilline is the host of the conference in his home city, and the firefighters, backed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, plan to stage a picket line at the event.

"While this administration is taking no position on the circumstances of the dispute itself, we have always respected picket lines, and administration officials will not cross this one," Gibbs said.

In his own statement, Cicilline said the tactics of the firefighters have dampened Providence's chances of shining on a national stage. Still, he said, he would not "cave" into meeting contract demands even if means a no-show by all the Obama dignitaries. He called the effort "political extortion."

"This means that some people will cancel plans to come to Providence, harming our hospitality and tourism industry and the workers who depend on it," he said. "It also means that the national media coverage will reinforce the worst stereotypes about Providence, our state, and the labor movement in general."

The Obama administration had contacted the national firefighters' union to try brokering a deal with its Providence members, said Paul Doughty, president of Providence Firefighters Local 799. The firefighters had promised not to picket if Cicilline stayed away from the conference.

Doughty said he was unsure exactly why the negotiations failed. The conference provides a high-visibility platform for his union to showcase its complaints.

"It definitely highlights that this has been going on for five years," Doughty said. "I have the media's attention right now."

The firefighters' international association, based in Washington, praised the White House.

"We appreciate the Obama administration's support of fire fighters," said the group's president, Harold Schaitberger. "This is another example of the administration's unqualified support for workers and organized labor."

The annual meeting of the mayors is set for June 12-16.

Obama has sought to keep strong ties with mayors and enlist their support in his economic recovery agenda since before he was even sworn into office.

Gibbs made a clear attempt to show the mayors that the White House's decision was not meant to snub them.

"We understand that this will prevent numerous administration officials from having a very useful and important dialogue with America's mayors at this meeting, and we will redouble our efforts to continue the dialogue in other ways," Gibbs said.

The Providence dispute has intersected with national politics in the past. In 2007, Cicilline resigned his position as co-chair of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign in Rhode Island after the union that represents city firefighters threatened to picket a Clinton fundraiser.

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Associated Press writer Kelsey Abbruzzese in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.

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