The State of the Fire Service – Pension Attacks and Union Busting

As involved in politics as I once was, I was able to learn a lot…Much of what I learned is that most of our battles are uphill and can only be won with sheer numbers of lobbyists (individual informed firefighters), time, and determination.

More recently that thought process has changed. We need help. We need a lot of help! We are fighting legislation that will set us back more than 50 years. We stand to lose many benefits and rights that some of us have been cozy with for a long time. These are rights that we signed on with. When I got hired, part of the reasoning for taking the job was the light at the end of the tunnel…my pension. Even at the ripe old age of 22, I had my sights set on the reward for a career and lifestyle in public service. My pension, to me, was payment for a dangerous job and less then glamorous pay. I am now half way through my career and beginning to think that in the very near future I might be fighting for that pension locally just as so many firefighters are fighting for elsewhere.

Collective bargaining is a little different for me. That was more of a dream working in Virginia where we do not and have never had collective bargaining. Up until last year, I thought that collective bargaining was within reach. I didn’t view it as a way to fatten my pay and benefits…I actually saw it as a means to regain some of the benefits that were stripped from me….benefits that I had and enjoyed when I got hired. They have taken from me and my family and I wanted it back.

In addition, collective bargaining might have helped with getting a raise in the past 4 years. Four years without a raise…yet groceries, health care, gas, and everything else continues to rise in price. When I say “no raise”…I mean nothing at all. Not even a cost of living raise.

But my issues are small in comparison to others…

Most firefighters rely on other firefighters to fight their battles. Whether it is the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), State Professional Firefighter Associations, Local IAFF Chapters, or even the National Volunteer Fire Council…these organizations are run by firefighters. Whether on staff or voluntarily working for the good of the organization they are only as strong as their membership. Not all of us participate for one reason or another…unfortunately.

Recently, we have had others assisting in lobbying for us. Case and point – Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and MSNBC’s Ed Schultz. Firefighters also have many legislators fighting in their corner. Unfortunately, many of them are outnumbered by the opposition.

So many firefighters have been fighting for collective bargaining for years…and now that fight has swayed to keep collective bargaining for the ones who already have it.

Now our pensions are under attack. Our pensions, and our salaries are being scapegoated as the reason for budget deficits. We are the problem according to some.

Wisconsin Firefighters were spared from a recent Union busting bill even though they were there to fight against it. I can imagine why…we all know what is next…including public safety to save even more money and put public safety at risk. Ohio firefighters are still fighting the passage of Senate Bill 5 which strips public workers of collective bargaining rights…including police officers and firefighters. (read more) Senate Bill 5 is here

Bill Maher had a great debate on March 9th with Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), Paul Begala, Former Representative Tom Davis (R-VA), Dana Loesch, Bill T. Jones. This is a must watch for every firefighter! It gives great insight into what the two sides of the aisle think about pensions and collective bargaining.

PBS recently offered a story including video titled “Are public employee unions to blame for states’ budget woes?“.
“In all, 13 governors have proposed layoffs, or cuts in pay or benefits for state employees.  And it’s not just Republicans — Democratic governors, like Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York have also put state workers on notice.”

And…we are are worst enemies. We are counter-productive. We have some who make us all look bad. Damage control is not easy when any and EVERY bad story related to a firefighter makes it in the evening news or in print.

Luckily for the attackers, they don’t have to look far to point the finger. Look at Clark County, Nevada. Some firefighters are being accused of sick leave abuse. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the firefighters are guilty from the reports. Is it as widespread as the media leads you to believe…probably not. But this issue now has people looking at firefighter salaries under a microscope. Who wins? It sure as hell won’t be the Clark County firefighters. They are experiencing the wrath of bad publicity and are getting the cold shoulder from the very people they are sworn to protect. (story here)

Where do these bad apples come from? You know, the ones who make the evening news and make us look bad. Maybe it is from the lowered expectations in hiring procedures. Look at a recent story by the Washington Post on the hiring practices of FDNY titled Firehouse Flunkies.

Related: The Dayton Police Department is lowering their expectations as well (story here).

Unfortunately, hiring practices like the ones linked to above are out of firefighters hands….we will reap the benefits though (sarcasm).

And yet with all of this we all continue to do our jobs…sometimes in terrible conditions. Check out a recent update on plans to fix a worn out firehouse in Cleveland here. I didn’t even bring up brownouts, furloughs, pay cuts, layoffs, and many other issues affecting us today.

The International Association of Firefighters are currently in Washington D.C. for their Annual Legislative Conference. There is no doubt in my mind that these Pension attacks and Union busting will be on the forefront of the itinerary.

The IAFF has created a UStream channel for the next couple of days where you can watch the events. Check out

And if you are wondering what you the firefighter can do to help…simple…get involved!