NASA Firefighters Protest Steep Cuts (Updated)

Mike Elk

Outside the Kennedy Space Center, NASA firefighters in TWU Local 525 protest benefit cuts; they hope Congress will take up their cause.

This week, pho­tos of NASA engi­neers joy­ous­ly cel­e­brat­ing their suc­cess­ful Mars rover mis­sion went viral on the Inter­net. How­ev­er, for anoth­er set of NASA work­ers – the fire­fight­ers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Flori­da – there has been lit­tle joy in the face of immi­nent slash­es to their retire­ment ben­e­fits by NASA con­trac­tor G4S.

Last year, G4S, the third largest employ­er in the world (and the trou­bled provider of secu­ri­ty for the Lon­don Olympics), took over the con­tract to pro­vide fire­fight­ing ser­vices at NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter. G4S con­tin­ued to employ the 90 fire­fight­ers who worked there but demand­ed con­tract con­ces­sions. For the last year the fire­fight­ers have been work­ing under the terms of their pre­vi­ous con­tract, as nego­ti­at­ed by their union, Trans­port Work­ers Union Local 525. But now that the year is com­ing to an end, G4S is push­ing for steep cuts.

Upon tak­ing over the con­tracts last Novem­ber, G4S imme­di­ate­ly froze the fire­fight­ers’ pen­sions and con­vert­ed them from a defined pen­sion plan to a 401(k). Now, in nego­ti­a­tions with work­ers, G4S wants to dou­ble work­ers’ out-of-pock­et med­ical expens­es. The com­pa­ny also pro­pos­es an 80 per­cent reduc­tion in its con­tri­bu­tions to the fire­fight­ers’ retire­ment plan, forc­ing work­ers to pay more out of their own pay­checks. The company’s new retire­ment scheme would cut work­ers’ retire­ment income by a min­i­mum of 30 per­cent, and pos­si­bly more for work­ers who have been there few­er years. Retire­ment is an impor­tant issue for fire­fight­ers, who typ­i­cal­ly retire in their ear­ly 50s because of their phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing jobs.

Fire­men are walk­ing off [the job] because they are dis­gust­ed by [the ben­e­fit cuts]. They are find­ing jobs in oth­er places. Fire­men go to work where they know there is a decent wage and they can retire,” says TWU Local 525 Pres­i­dent Kevin Smith. Now the com­pa­ny is giv­ing them such a ter­ri­ble pack­age that there is no way they can retire like nor­mal fire­fight­ers across the country.”

G4S refused to respond to inter­view requests, say­ing it could not com­ment on ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions oth­er than to say that we con­tin­ue to nego­ti­ate with the Trans­port Work­ers Union to work towards a suc­cess­ful resolution.“

How­ev­er, accord­ing to TWU Local 525, G4S has said at the bar­gain­ing table that the cuts are nec­es­sary in order for them to make a prof­it on the con­tract, since they can’t get addi­tion­al mon­ey from NASA.“In a lot of con­tracts, you have a vehi­cle to get equi­table adjust­ments to meet con­tract costs. This is a fixed price con­tract and there is no way to get an adjust­ment,” explains TWU Local 525 Pres­i­dent Kevin Smith.

How­ev­er, NASA has refused to get involved in the nego­ti­a­tions, say­ing that legal­ly they can­not do so as a neu­tral third party.

I am upset with NASA,” says Smith. They accept­ed the bid, so they are respon­si­ble for it, but they have no way to fix it. They have a fault with no remedy.”

For now, work­ers are step­ping up their mil­i­tan­cy in an attempt to engage NASA. The union fire­fight­ers are pick­et­ing Kennedy Space Cen­ter twice a day, five days a week, demand­ing sim­ply to main­tain the con­tract they cur­rent­ly have.

If we don’t stand up to them and fight them, all the oth­er shops are com­ing through behind us on nego­ti­a­tions,“ says David McGa­ha, a para­medic and fire­fight­er. Before you know we are going to be work­ing for min­i­mum wage with no benefits.”

Despite the ongo­ing pick­et­ing, Smith remains pes­simistic that the union by itself can suc­cess­ful­ly pres­sure NASA to clean up the mess.

I am cer­tain­ly not a big enough per­son to put pres­sure on NASA,” says Smith. I have been pick­et­ing them for three years and I’m get­ting nowhere. It’s going to take a Sen­a­tor or Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to step up.”

Update 8/10/12:

In response to In These Times requests for com­ment, NASA Kennedy Space Cen­ter New Chief Michael Curie sent the fol­low­ing statement:

NASA last year award­ed a new $152 mil­lion dol­lar, fixed-price con­tract with Chene­ga Secu­ri­ty & Sup­port Solu­tions to pro­vide pro­tec­tive ser­vices at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter. The com­pa­ny is now nego­ti­at­ing a future ben­e­fits pack­age with its con­tract work­force and we look for­ward to a fair and equi­table res­o­lu­tion of these talks. For those work­ers who had pen­sions under the pre­vi­ous con­tract, they will see no change in their ben­e­fits, and NASA will ful­ly meet its finan­cial oblig­a­tions to cov­er the costs of those ben­e­fits. We val­ue the impor­tant pro­tec­tive ser­vices these employ­ees pro­vide, and look for­ward to a time­ly and equi­table res­o­lu­tion of this matter.”

In oth­er words, NASA will hon­or pen­sion pay­outs for work­ers who paid in under the pre­vi­ous con­tract, but will still not be involved in cur­rent negotiations.

The pre­vi­ous day, a fire broke out at Kennedy when the project Mor­pheus lan­der explod­ed dur­ing a test fight. Fire­fight­ers extin­guished the flames and no one was hurt.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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