The Power of Standing Together

by Lou Paulson
President, California Professional Firefighters

This past February, the U.S. Congress introduced so-called “National Right to Work Act”. Its goal: drain away the resources of a labor organization by letting workers “opt out” of dues or fair-share fees.  Understand: The union would still have to negotiate for the free riders, represent them in grievance procedures, stand up for them with local leadership and provide other mandated services. The free riders would just get all those benefits … well, for free.

This proposal is one of a series of troubling signals coming out of Washington this year:

  • One congressman has suggested eliminating the Federal Employees Retirement System. That’s right, the whole federal pension system;
  • A new law already signed by the president eliminates workplace safety regulations for federal contractors – a canary-in-the-coal-mine for public sector workplace safety;
  • The new federal budget targets just about every significant labor protection, and the new Health Secretary is an outspoken advocate of union-busting;
  •  A new national “right to work” court case – Janus vs. AFSCME – is working its way up to a U.S. Supreme Court now stacked to oppose labor.

In California, firefighters have won groundbreaking cancer presumption laws, workplace safety standards and the right to a meaningful, secure pension. All California public workers enjoy strong rights to negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions and the right to make the case for their workers in the court of public opinion.

Every one of these important protections were hard-fought victories won by our strong, united labor movement. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

But many could go away with the stroke of a presidential pen or a political attack.

Emboldened by the national anti-labor drumbeat, big-money anti-labor extremists are sneaking their tentacles into California. Billionaire John Arnold is bankrolling a sophisticated national effort to end pensions. Oil tycoons Charles and David Koch are backing groups unapologetically bent on breaking unions. 

They’ve got the money, sympathetic ears in Washington and a massive power structure that generally puts workers last on the list. But we’ve got something they don’t -- each other.

Over the years, California voters have repeatedly shown their sympathy for firefighters, unions and the rights of working people. Voters have routinely elected large pro-firefighter legislative majorities, which on many issues stretch across party lines. When confronted by efforts to restrict union rights and decimate pension security, California voters have responded with a resounding “No”. 

This success doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when we stand together as a proud, united family. That’s why it’s more important than ever to stand up and be counted with our brothers and sisters – both within our profession and with all working people.

For me, it’s summed up by the words of Robbie Hunter, our strong partner in the State Building Trades Council. “Here in California ... we have made workers and their families even more secure, and workplaces and communities safer and less hazardous. This progress can be sustained only by a never-ending quest by determined working people. We must never allow this unity and determination to weaken. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us.”

Our firefighter family is a proud union family, and we stand up for each other when it counts. The union really is all of us.