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Working In These Times

Thursday, Aug 18, 2011, 1:17 pm

Cops and Firefighters: The Public Sector’s New Untouchable Upper Class?

BY Matthew Blake

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On Monday, August 15, the City of Chicago laid off 72 traffic control aides in the name of fiscal austerity. SEIU Local 73’s pleas for an arbitration process were granted, but the soonest an arbitrator will hear the case is mid-September.

The workers, who keep traffic moving downtown, are the first of several hundred unionized city employees expected to lose their jobs. In late June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced 625 planned layoffs, including water department call center operators, janitors at airports and libraries, and seasonal transportation workers. Last week, the city notified 24 social service workers for the homeless that they will be laid off September 1.

Notably absent from pending layoffs: police officers and firefighters. Why? 

“The city is going after the low-hanging fruit,” says Matt Brandon, secretary/treasurer of SEIU Local 73, which represents custodians, among other city employees. “It’s easier to demonize those lazy, dirty custodians. The police and firefighter unions stand off to the sidelines because they are the sacred cows.”

What’s going on in Chicago parallels what happened with Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair” law in Wisconsin, which caused thousands of unionists and activists to protest in Madison earlier this year: Police and firefighters were exempted from the major pension, healthcare and – most important – collective bargaining concessions foisted upon other Badger State public employees.

"Scott Walker has created two classes of public-sector workers," Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt said.

Police and fire responded in Wisconsin by rallying behind other public employees, with the exception of Milwaukee public safety workers. But Chicago cops and firefighters might not show that kind of solidarity in the coming months. 

“Wisconsin was a shining example of what an inclusive labor movement could look like,” says Robert Bruno, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “But there are elements of separation between unions in Chicago.” 

Walker and Emanuel’s select targeting of public employees is not a universal tactic around the country, as cash-strapped states and municipalities look to balance budgets, although similar proposals were made this year in Indiana and Idaho. “It is fairly easy to demonize a bureaucrat in an office somewhere, but it’s hard to do that with a guy who keeps your house from burning down or saves you from a mugging,” Bruno says.  

Also, cops and firefighters tend more to be “males with a Western European background,” Bruno says, who are politically organized, while other public employees are more likely to be recent immigrants, women and people of color. 

In Wisconsin, a coalition of labor unions is fighting the Walker-backed legislation, which virtually eliminates public workers’ collective bargaining rights, in federal court through a lawsuit filed June 15. Labor organizations like the Wisconsin AFL-CIO argue that the law illegally privileges a certain class of employees—i.e., police and firefighters.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association and Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association are not part of the plaintiff coalition, but both unions opposed Walker as a candidate and oppose the new law.

“We support collective bargaining rights for all individuals,” says Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin . “So this law galvanized our base and brought people closer together and made clear to our members that elections matter.”  

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s affiliate of the National Education Association, praises police and fire as “standing shoulder to shoulder with us as Walker aimed to split the labor movement.” 

A notable exception to this show of solidarity was the Milwaukee firefighters and police unions, who represent about 15 percent of the state’s public safety workers, and are not affiliated with the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association or Wisconsin Professional Police Association. The unions made waves by endorsing Walker’s candidacy for governor and maintained their support even as other Wisconsin police and firefighters protested outside the state capitol.  

“The governor has a very strong awareness of the need for public safety,” says Mike V. Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association. “Public safety is unique. These men and women put themselves on the line for the community.” 

Divisions brewing in Chicago

The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police appears to have similar views. Pat Camden, spokesman for the Chicago FOP, says that, “The mayor has to do what the mayor has to do” regarding layoffs. “I’m concerned with the Fraternal Order of Police and our contract with the city, “ Camden says. “Our concerns come from the public safety point of view.”  

Chicago police and firefighters make up almost two-thirds of the city’s payroll cost. “During a time of extraordinary fiscal stress, every city department – including public safety departments – should be reducing costs,” warned the Chicago Civic Federation watchdog group in a report last month.

But Emanuel has no plans for firefighter or police cuts.
 
Camden said the FOP would not comment for now on whether the police union would show support for public workers losing their jobs. Calls to the Chicago Firefighters Union were not returned, and the Chicago Federation of Labor declined comment.   

Brandon, of SEIU Local 73, says he is not waiting for police and firefighters to join the fight in preserving unionized city jobs. Specific plans to take action are on hold, but Brandon has mentioned occupying Emanuel’s 5th floor office at City Hall.

“Our relationship with police and fire is somewhat standoffish, “ he says. “Because of the position they’re in, they don’t want to get involved.”


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Matthew Blake is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He has written for the Chicago Journal, Washington Monthly, Washington Independent and The Nation, among other publications.

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