COMMENTARY: Unions bullying cities’ volunteer firefighters

You probably haven’t heard that Congress is about to shut down many of America’s volunteer fire departments. Not intentionally, perhaps. Yet a little-known bill advancing through Congress would do just that.

Nearly 26,000 volunteer fire departments protect tens of millions of Americans and their homes from fires. Almost three out of every four firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and smaller towns and cities call on them for protection. A town with 3,000 residents simply cannot afford the expense of hiring full-time career firefighters. They rely on volunteers.

These volunteer departments are usually anchored by a core of professional career firefighters. Often they work in another city and volunteer to protect their neighbors in their off-duty hours. Volunteer firefighters risk their lives and sacrifice their time for their communities. Who would want to shut them down?

The International Association of Fire Fighters, that’s who. The IAFF represents career firefighters. Volunteers who give their time and efforts to their communities allow many communities to do without full-time career fire departments. This means fewer jobs for career firefighters, and fewer dues-paying members in the union that represents them. So the IAFF does everything in its power to stop “two-hatters” from volunteering.

The IAFF constitution prohibits its members from belonging to a volunteer fire department. In the words of IAFF President Harold Schaitberger, the decision to volunteer is a personal choice, but “that personal choice is one that can have serious consequences under our Constitution.” Union members who disobey face steep union fines that the courts will enforce. In some cities, the IAFF negotiates, on its members’ behalf, contracts stating that they will lose their jobs if they volunteer in their off-duty hours.

The union’s effort to ban volunteering is an assault on our civic fabric. Doctors who provide free care to the poor, lawyers who work pro bono for the disadvantaged, and firefighters who volunteer for their communities make America a better country.

Without career firefighters willing to give their time, many volunteer fire departments would have to close. Look at Connecticut. The IAFF negotiated “no-volunteering” clauses in the contracts of every major city there. Now many of the state’s volunteer fire departments are having difficulty finding enough volunteers to protect their communities. Some cities have had to raise taxes significantly to hire career firefighters – exactly what the IAFF intended.

Enter the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, which would make it significantly easier for the IAFF to shut down volunteer fire departments. The bill, which passed the House and is before the Senate, has nothing to do with employer-employee cooperation. This bill requires every state and local government to collectively bargain with their police officers and firefighters, and to negotiate virtually every term and condition of employment. Those states that have decided collective bargaining doesn’t meet their needs would have to do so anyway. States that currently limit what they negotiate would have to negotiate almost everything – including “no volunteering” clauses.

If this bill passes and forces every local government to bargain collectively with its firefighters, the IAFF’s membership rolls will swell and the union will have enhanced powers to negotiate away the freedom of its members to volunteer. Many career firefighters who want to serve their community will lose the ability to do so, unless they want to lose their jobs.

Recognizing that concerns for volunteer firefighters could sink the bill, its supporters added a provision specifying that private sector collective bargaining agreements cannot prevent workers from volunteering. Since virtually every firefighter works for the government and not in the private sector, this actually does nothing to protect volunteer firefighters. But it sounds good.

Instead of adding meaningless provisions that do nothing to defend firefighters’ right to volunteer, Congress should let local communities decide if collective bargaining is right for them. Many communities have decided that it is. But others, concerned about how unions would attack their volunteer firefighters, have not. Congress should not make it easier for the IAFF punish firefighters for volunteering to protect their neighbors.

– James Sherk is a policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation. His column appears courtesy McClatchy-Tribune News Service.