Kevin O’Connor argues that our rights and benefits are being targeted by elected officials who are driven only by budgets.

This month my column is a wake-up call for career firefighters to alert you of the attacks on your employment rights, job security and financial well-being. In most states and jurisdictions across the country, firefighters have enjoyed fair wages, secure pensions and workplace protections under either strong civil service laws or through collective bargaining agreements.

In states with higher union density, the rights and benefits are generally greater. But, even in Right to Work States and jurisdictions in which firefighters do not have bargaining rights, we have fared pretty well securing fair wages, good healthcare and a defined benefit pension plan that affords a secure and dignified retirement.

As the memory of 9/11 fades, elected officials of both political parties have taken aim at firefighters and the benefits for which we have fought and earned through our dedication, bravery and sacrifice. Buttressed with a pervasive anti-government sentiment and funded by ultra-conservative anti-public employee entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage and Arnold foundations and others, politicians are trying to gut benefits on both the state and local levels.

This is not an attempt to stir the pot or needlessly cry wolf. But, if we sit idly by, we will become cannon fodder for those wishing to silence our voices, privatize our jobs, and cut our capacity to respond safely with adequate staffing and safe equipment. 

For rank-and-file firefighters, your concern is obvious and very personal. Your livelihoods and financial security are in jeopardy.

Let’s look at the legislation and actions being considered by governors, state legislatures and local government. It should frighten you.

In Iowa and Ohio, the legislatures are trying to weaken collective bargaining laws that have been in place for almost 40 years. Iowa’s proposal is so draconian it would permit employers to terminate firefighters without having to demonstrate proper cause. It also would end the ability of employees to pay their union dues via payroll deduction and would decimate the arbitration process. Ohio’s bill would radically change the scope of the bargaining process.

Attempts to discontinue dues deductions or implementing payroll protection/deception to silence the voice of firefighters are actively pending in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and New Hampshire. Thankfully, the firefighters in Tennessee recently killed one of these ill-conceived proposals.

For years, firefighters have sacrificed wages for disability and retirement benefits. Those age-old compromises and bargains are being tossed aside. In Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, legislation is proceeding to cut benefits. In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback is proposing that the state skips its annual contribution to keep the system funded and is trying to freeze all benefits at the 2016 levels. South Carolina is proposing a hike to employee contributions. In the cities of Jacksonville and Philadelphia, the jurisdictions are trying to eliminate pensions for all new hires. Mayors in both Houston and Dallas are proposing significant benefit cuts and increasing employee contributions.

It’s easy to understand why those directly impacted financially need to oppose these attacks. But as a fire chief or senior manager, why should you be outraged and in opposition?

The answer is equally as obvious. The days of a fire chief having the independence to advocate for more funding, greater staff, a modernized fleet and other essential equipment and, most importantly, being able to criticize politicians who short change the fire service are long passed. Almost all chiefs of department and many senior chief officers are at-will employees. Anger a politician and you’re fired. That is today’s reality.

An engaged, well-resourced and active fire service union provides a voice that can’t be silenced. It is a valuable tool in the arsenal to advocate for the fire service. Some of us remember the days when a fire chief who had civil service protection could stand up and be heard. Today, the union is all that’s left. Silence the voice of the union, and we will all be at the whim of budget-driven politicos.

The fire service succeeds because we have good people. Take away a firefighter’s security, protection and benefits, and they will seek other employment and our profession will diminish and suffer. We attract the best of the best because firefighters are committed to a profession of saving lives and protecting the public. While we understand that we will never get rich, we expect to earn a fair wage and have decent benefits.  

It is time to lay down the gauntlet and fight. Firefighters have earned the rights and benefits we enjoy. We can’t allow misguided politicians to steal them away.