Kevin O’Connor explains why every firefighter should have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Every day firefighters and paramedics protect communities and citizens across America. But there is a fundamental question that every firefighter should ask themselves: “While we are in harm’s way, who’s protecting us?”

Bargaining explained

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), giving all private sector workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. Regrettably, those basic employment rights have not been extended to firefighters. In 20 states, firefighters are denied the right to sit down and discuss workplace-related issues with their employer. It is a travesty and a disgrace that the workers who manufacture our gear and build our apparatus are afforded bargaining rights, but the men and women who run into burning buildings and provide rescue and emergency medical care are not.

Many people, both in and out of the fire service, have no understanding of the collective bargaining process. There is trepidation among managers that bargaining erodes the chain of command and will diminish services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Secretary of Labor’s Task Force on Excellence in State and Local Government concluded: “Collective bargaining applied in cooperative, service-oriented ways provide the most consistently valuable structure for beginning and sustaining workplace partnership with effective service results.”

Collective bargaining is a process, nothing more. It provides an orderly forum in which firefighters chosen by their colleagues have the opportunity to sit across the table from their chief, city manager and, in some cases, their elected officials to discuss issues ranging from staffing to health and safety concerns to compensation and retirement benefits.

There is no obligation on the part of management to agree to any demands or to make concessions that they believe would be injurious to operations or would pose too great a burden on the taxpayers of that jurisdiction. Bargaining requirements mandate a process, not an outcome.

When firefighters were excluded from the NLRA, efforts abounded at state houses across the country and in local jurisdiction to implement laws providing basic bargaining rights. Beginning in the late 1950s, many laws were passed and firefighters went to the bargaining table. While the laws varied greatly from state to state, the process of collective bargaining provided a voice and protection to rank-and-file firefighters.

Wages rose, hours were shortened, pension and health benefits were obtained and major advancements were made in improving staffing, protective gear and establishing response protocols and other standards to make the job safer.

Examples, coast to coast

Collective bargaining works for firefighters and for the overall fire service. Examples of best practices abound from coast to coast. Mayor Martin Walsh and Commissioner Joe Finn are using the bargaining process in Boston to update and improve gear and PPE. In addressing the fiscal plight of Detroit, management and labor bargained resolutions to both pension funding and operational response issues. Instituting a community paramedicine program was negotiated and implemented in Chandler, AZ, and Dallas. In Las Vegas and Sacramento, CA, other aspects of EMS billing and response were settled through joint management/labor cooperation. Currently, union and management in Prince George’s County, MD, are bargaining improvements in staffing and response protocols.

In spite of the progress, a number of states resisted and continued to deny firefighters representational and bargaining rights. Throughout the South, politicians have historically eschewed bargaining as being seditious. Examples abound of firefighters being terminated and denied advancement for advocating and trying to advance the plight of their fellow firefighters.

In recent years, in states that have a long history of collective bargaining, a new breed of politicos are attacking long-established laws and painting firefighters as government fat cats.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich tried unsuccessfully to repeal the state’s 30-year-old bargaining law. In Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, new laws allowing jurisdictions or politically appointed trustees to arbitrarily ignore or abrogate union contracts have been instituted. As a result, attempts to reduce staffing cut companies and slash pay and benefits have been advanced.

Major cities like Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Memphis have joined the parade in attempting to diminish the collective voice of firefighters. These attacks are coming from both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

What we deserve

Make no mistake, firefighters are under attack.

With more than 300,000 career firefighters and paramedics, we must press our case in both Congress and in all 50 states that firefighters deserve the same basic protections and employment rights that the rest of America has enjoyed since the New Deal.

It’s long overdue that every firefighter should have the right to organize and bargain collectively. It’s time to protect the protectors.