Brazen Contempt from Union Firefighters? Or Attitude We Should Emulate?

Published July 1, 2008

What do you see when you look at the Boston Firefighters Union?

Do you see brazen greed and naked contempt for the taxpayer? That’s what I used to see, too. But maybe we’ve been too hard on the firefighters. Maybe what we’ve perceived for so long as avarice and arrogance is really a style of self-help that the rest of us should emulate.

I used to look at the Fire Department and see a culture of corruption and rip-offs. I used to find it infuriating that unethical firefighters would so brazenly misuse sick leave, or file bogus disability claims, or, as recent evidence suggests, cheat on a civil service exam. I thought it was especially disgusting that even after two firefighters died last year with intoxicants in their system–autopsies found that one was drunk and the other had used cocaine–the union vehemently insisted that it would agree to random drug testing only, to quote spokesman Scott Salman, “if it were a contractual thing, if it were more money.”

I was appalled when the union stuck to that demand–more money!–even after it transpired that a dozen firefighters had been kicked off the force for substance abuse and scores more ordered into treatment programs because they seemed drunk or stoned on the job.

‘We’re Not Dogs!’

But in the wake of April 30’s raucous firefighters rally at the State House, I’m changing my attitude about their attitude. Did you see that rally? There were hundreds of firefighters, marching up from the Boston Common in their red union T-shirts and chanting: “What do we want? Respect! When do we want it? Now!” And there was Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, bellowing, “We’re not dogs! We won’t be treated like dogs!”

Well, how can you argue with that?

Boston firefighters earned an average of $92,756 in 2006–$103,817 if health benefits are included. According to the authoritative Boston Municipal Research Bureau, 55 percent of the city’s firefighters take home an annual compensation package worth $100,000 or more. You call that respect?

Three-Fourths Retire ‘Disabled’

And that doesn’t include pension benefits: According to the research bureau, the average pension for a retiring firefighter is nearly $67,000 a year. And if he retires on a disability claim, he gets it tax-free. (Would you believe that nearly 75 percent of all Fire Department retirements in recent years have been based on “disabilities?” Probably just a coincidence.)


So you can see why the firefighters bristle at being treated like “dogs”–can’t you? And you can understand why Firefighters Local 718 and its president Ed Kelly will be damned if they’ll agree to drug testing without first getting their paychecks beefed up. What’s more important, after all–making sure that first responders with life-and-death responsibilities stay sober? Or crossing their palms with extra silver?

There’s no denying the Boston Fire Department has been earning plenty of bad press lately. One firefighter was arrested for illegally buying OxyContin from a known drug dealer in public; another was caught allegedly smoking marijuana in a Boston Fire Department vehicle. Federal prosecutors have just launched a grand-jury probe into what looks like rampant pension fraud and disability abuse by Boston firefighters. Police have been ordered to guard Fire Department headquarters to ensure that firefighters don’t steal or tamper with documents subpoenaed by the FBI.

Learning from the Best

Not a pretty picture. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the rest of us shouldn’t take a page from the firefighters’ playbook. Let’s all refuse to do our jobs properly unless we’re paid extra to do so. UPS wants its drivers to obey traffic laws? Pay up! Massachusetts General Hospital expects doctors and nurses to protect patients’ privacy? Show ’em the money! Schools want to ban teachers from improper contact with students? Give ’em a raise! Superior Court judges should be banned from taking bribes? Only if the price is right!

Preposterous? Yes–but no more preposterous than firefighters demanding a reward before they’ll agree to random drug testing.

No one is forced to become a firefighter. Those who choose to do so are entitled to be paid for the dangers they bravely face. They’re not entitled to be paid for agreeing not to endanger others. Insisting otherwise makes the union look ridiculous and greedy. If the Firefighters’ Union really wants more “respect,” it might consider showing some for the rest of us.

Jeff Jacoby ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe, where an earlier version of this column appeared. Reprinted with permission.