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End of the line?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

One thing many people did not know about Harrington was that he is an Irish-American, and proudly so.
The 53-year old Harrington, who converted to Sikhism 25 years ago, was working as an operator for the 4 train when he was suddenly reassigned to yard duty, widely considered a less desirable position.
The reason, according to New York City Transit, was Harrington’s non-compliance with MTA dress codes- specifically, his turban did not fall under the category of a regulation transit cap. Harrington, who had dyed his turban blue to match his uniform, quickly alerted the media to his plight.
One of the tenets of the Sikh religion requires that followers do not cut their hair, and require the use of a turban. Harrington has been wearing his turban since he began work with the Transit Authority 23 years ago and says he never encountered a problem.
The “turban tussle” that ensued drew media attention around the world as well as ire from the public and politicians alike, and Harrington was quickly reinstated to his position.
Harrington, a resident of the Norwood section of the Bronx, is well versed in his Irish heritage. Raised in both the Bronx and Queens, his mother and father were born in Kerry and Cork, respectively, and there was the grandmother who would often put a ticket in Harrington’s hand to spend the summers in either place.
Living for a time with his Gaelic-speaking grandfather, Harrington was able to pick up some of the language, and at one point was thought to have picked up an Irish accent.
He learned to hurl and played Gaelic football at Gaelic Park, and knows all about the rivalry between his parent counties thanks to numerous Sunday visits.
Harrington grew up with both Catholicism and Protestantism at home. He credits this exposure as helping him realize his own spirituality.
“As a kid I realized I was religious,” Harrington recalls, “I learned about inner spiritual life.”
Harrington’s fight over his job links his adopted religion and his Irish heritage in a way few would understand.
As it turns out, Harrington’s fight would not end at his reinstatement. Shortly after Harrington returned to operating the 4, union officials with the Transit Workers Union Local 100 received a memo from Transit Authority President Lawrence Reuter, stating that the no-turban uniform policy would be strictly enforced in September, when a job pick would take place.
TWU-100’s press representative Dan Katzman explained that twice a year New York City Transit asks its employees to “pick” an assignment. Based on seniority, the pick is a chance to change jobs, with spots like train operator being in high demand.
“After publicly promising to be more rational,” Katzman said, “the Transit Authority’s implication is for Harrington to pick out of a road job into the yard.”
Katzman said President Reuter’s memo was an “availed threat” for Harrington to take the position in the yard, the same one he fought to get out of when he was first taken off train operation.
According to Katzman, Harrington would not be allowed to wear his turban as a train operator with the newly enforced dress code, and if he did not take the yard job, he could be take off duty all together.
Katzman reinforced the TWU’s “full support” of Harrington in his plight.
In response to Harrington’s and other cases, the MTA has formed a committee that is looking into special circumstances where religious headgear can be allowed. As recently as last week, the NYPD reinstated two Sikh police officers who were dismissed for wearing their turbans.
For his part, Harrington is standing up to his employer.
“I won’t do it,” he says simply. “I’ll lose a good position as well as a lot of money.”
“I am not the type to step down,” he said.
Harrington said that the people he comes across see two sides to his argument.
“People have had two reactions,” Harrington said. “Some people say I have a constitutional right to practice my religion, and others say it’s not right that the Transit Authority took 23 years to bother me about my turban.”
Harrington has only two more years to work until he can retire- not that he will.
“I have two young children,” he notes.
Keeping it all in the family, Harrington’s wife, also a Sikh of Irish background, has roots in County Mayo.
Charles Seaton, New York City Transit’s Director of Public Affairs said on Monday that “there will be no changes to the dress code.”
The agency is, however, in talks to determine if certain religious reasons for not adhering to the dress code can be allowed.
“I can’t foresee any movement,” Seaton said, “Discussions are going on right now.”
Harrington hopes to avoid a court fight with the Transit Authority, and admits that engaging in a fight with a large city agency can have its downside.
“Having this uncertainty over my head is disruptive,” he said.
He says, however, that he is not a disruption to his passengers. Having operated the same train line for 12 years, Harrington figures “everyone who is going to see me has already seen me.”
Harrington, a their-generation transit worker, began his career in Transit Authority as a bus cleaner. He took the test to be promoted to driving a train, and after nine years garnered enough seniority to operate the 4 train, the terminus of which is conveniently located near his home.
Harrington’s family history with the transit includes his father, who was a union official with the TWU-100. There, he was the head of a chain of bus drivers. Harrington recalls when, in the 1950s, many Irish found work with the companies, leading to a strong foothold in the Transit Authority that is evident even today.
Much of Harrington’s willingness to fight what he considers unfair treatment stems from the history of his adopted religion as well as his Irish heritage.
Yogi Bhajan, a spiritual leader of Sikhs in the Western Hemisphere told Harrington that Sikhs have a history of not bowing down to oppression and Harrington’s Irish and Sikh background makes for a “formidable combination.”
As Harrington waits for word from the Transit Authority, he goes about his job as a train operator.
While he has not been to Ireland recently, Harrington keeps in touch with cousins via e-mail. As he does so, he is reminded of an Indian friend living in Limerick who recently told him that it seems both Sikhs and the Irish have a “seemingly endless list of relatives.”
With his “formidable combination” of heritage and religion, Harrington knows his fight is somewhat destined to be.
“Sikhs and the Irish have always been fighting for autonomy,” Harrington said. “Always fighting the powers that be.”

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