Providence Fire Fighters

Providence Fire Fighters Still Without a Current Contract

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FiremanThe Providence firefighters (Local 799) haven’t had a current contract since June 30, 2001. They have subsequently, through arbitration, settled for the period between 2001 to 2004, but they remain without an up-to-date contract. The issues that the city is demanding cut backs on are primarily, but not exclusively, health care, wages, benefits and staffing. Due to laws preventing firefighters from striking the union has been “forced into arbitration,” according to one rank and filer we interviewed. “The city has realized it is in their interests to stall. We can’t go on strike; even if we could we can’t turn our back on the public. It’s like a factory where you can do whatever you want to the workers but they can’t go on strike or stop working. The city knows this and gets away with it.”

Also at issue is the state of disrepair of the majority of the fire stations in the city. As the firefighter we interviewed told us, “We’re not asking for golden faucets here.” What the firefighters are asking for is to be treated with some dignity. In the station on North Main St. it took more that 14 years to provide a rest room for female firefighters, and to this day, there are 12 other stations with no female rest rooms, despite an increase in the number of female firefighters.

One city station is considered  structurally unsound. A firefighter was injured on a staircase that had a work order request submitted to the city nine years ago. Many in the rank and file are increasingly annoyed at the red tape they must wade though even for the most modest repairs: electrical and plumbing repairs, and even broken windows can take years to get fixed. In all but one of the fire stations in Providence, the rank and file actually pay out-of-pocket for air-conditioning, which is a necessity for health reasons after exposure to smoke and chemicals. The ranks also pay for phone service and “Just about everything else, except this,” said our interviewee, pointing to a forty-year-old table patched up with duct tape. “The more we do on our own, the less they have to do. That’s how the city sees it.”  

Adding fuel to the fire, the city has appointed a new Fire Chief whose job it is to cut an additional $1 million from the department, along with a new Fire Marshall with a pay structure of bonuses based on cuts made to the budget. A new city retirement board has been set up that puts a major question mark over the future of new firefighters’ pensions.

There is also talk of cutting one of the rescue units.  In addition to this, much of the rescue equipment is well beyond its normal life span of around 10 years. The equipment in some units of the department is as much as 18 years old.

Last year, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO Convention voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution submitted by Local 799 calling on the state AFL-CIO to contact all RI labor organizations to request that Providence Mayor David Cicilline cease and desist his anti-union policies and actions against the members of Local 799. This resolution of solidarity with the Providence firefighters must now be put into practice. The current strategy of mere political lobbying has led to the stagnation in the contract negotiations. Many rank and file firefighters are justifiably fed-up with this approach.

What is needed is a strategy that can put serious pressure on the city government, which is apparently more interested in cutting corners and providing a safe environment for private corporations than ensuring the safety of its citizens. As documented in recent months the Providence Journal, millions in tax breaks and other incentives to big business have left state and local government coffers depleted, resulting in cuts in services and attacks on government employees like the fire fighters.

Since Local 799’s good-faith negotiations haven’t yielded a contract, it is time to build on previous infFire Fightingormational pickets and rallies and build for a massive community march to City Hall to present these workers’ demands. In the spirit of the resolution passed last year’s state AFL-CIO convention, the leadership of the entire RI labor movement should mobilize its membership in support of Local 799, raising the question in every local, reaching out to the broader community, and building a solidarity committee to organize the march and rally.  An energetic campaign of presentations to union locals, leafletting, letters to the editor, interviews with the media, etc. could be taken up toward spreading awareness and building for the march.

Firefighters are essential to our community. The homes and even the lives of tens of thousands of Providence workers and their families depend on an efficient and well-equipped Fire Department. Finding the money to meet the modest demands of these workers should be a priority. And yet the city has taken advantage of their dedication to keep them working without a contract for years. By uniting the labor movement and the entire community in support of Local  799, we can ensure they get a decent contract that will allow them to continue protecting our community, and strengthen the RI labor movement as a whole.

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