DENVER - Dozens of the nation's politicians, from the federal government on down to city halls, are hypocritical in praising Fire Fighters and other first responders, then cutting public safety budgets, Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger says.
In an August 22 speech to his union's public safety and EMS conference, meeting in Denver, Schaitberger said such pols are unstinting in their praise, until it comes time to put up the money. Then they don't.
"When politics dictates public safety, we all get burned," he declared.
Schaitberger spoke as fire fighters find themselves stressed and stretched out. California wildfires, including one of which covers an area the size of Chicago, threaten San Francisco's water system, giant sequoia trees, and many towns. The federal agency that fights fires on public lands is virtually out of money to do so.
And 19 firefighters were killed battling another huge blaze near Prescott, Ariz., earlier this year, among other tragedies. That disaster exposed the hypocrisy, Schaitberger said.
"It was another moment in time when everyone - politicians, the media and the public - expressed grief and offered condolences, calling these men unbelievable heroes. Only to be short-lived," he added.
"Not even a month after returning from Arizona - where I was interviewed by the media about the danger of fighting fires - I was in Detroit fighting to protect the wages, benefits and working conditions of our members who continue to work to keep Detroit safe while dangerously understaffed and under-equipped," he said.
The union also is trying to "safeguard the retirement security of our brothers and sisters whose pensions hang in the balance as an overzealous emergency manager tries to use bankruptcy to absolve the city government of its pension fund obligations."
Representatives of the Fire Fighters pension fund, along with pension funds for other Detroit workers and AFSCME, which represents current workers, all formally objected to Detroit's bankruptcy reorganization filing. If a federal judge agrees with the request, state-named emergency manager Kevyn Orr could cut pensions, slash health care and tear up union contracts.
"Too often, the esteem and respect expressed during tragic events comes from politicians who are otherwise hostile to unions and union workers," Schaitberger added. "This sudden and hypocritical compassion by the same politicians who blame public pensions and union benefits for what's wrong with this country is disgraceful."
"People count on our members to be there, no matter what. You deserve their respect. Yet politicians at all levels of government are making life-and-death decisions that are dangerous for our members and the people they protect. Some have the public and media convinced that a handful of browned-out stations or a few less fire fighters are a fair price for lower taxes."
Schaitberger cited examples from Memphis, Tenn., Miami, Omaha, Neb., Portland, Ore., and the U.S. Defense Department, which is furloughing fire fighters - along with other civilian workers - at military bases. The cities are furloughing Fire Fighters and cutting EMS services so they don't have to raise property taxes, he said.
"Adding insult to injury, the president of the United States issued an executive order directing agencies to recruit volunteers to fulfill duties of furloughed employees," Schaitberger added.
"In Detroit, the largest American city to ever file bankruptcy, our members are paying for a financial disaster caused by those who stand to gain the most - reckless elected leaders, irresponsible decision-makers and greedy bondholders and hedge fund managers - all while screwing workers in the process.
"Yet the federal government - which spent billions to bail out U.S. auto makers and Wall Street financiers - sits and does nothing. Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Snyder and Orr want the public to believe pension debt is the cause of Detroit's financial disaster, using deeply flawed actuarial assumptions that grossly inflate the fire and police pension liabilities." Snyder, a right wing Republican and the GOP-run legislature approved the financial manager law. Snyder imposed Orr on majority-minority Detroit.
"They want the public to believe fire fighters and police officers are getting lavish pensions that they don't deserve when the average pension for Detroit's police officers and fire fighters is $34,000 - and they don't receive Social Security," Schaitberger said.
Solidarity, however, and reminding the public of vital services, would help beat that political hypocrisy, he declared. "This public disconnect is sickening and frustrating, but we know that when we stand together and fight back we can win.
"We stood together against collective bargaining attacks, threats to end arbitration, proposals to prevent deducting dues and attempts to silence our members' political voices in states across the nation, and we've won more times than we lost by reminding citizens we are dedicated public servants who keep our communities safe. We will continue to fight to protect the benefits and worker rights you have earned on the frontlines."