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

Matthew Blake

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.”

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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