In response to Steven Frias’ op/ed in Wednesday’s Journal titled, “Soaked by RI’s firefighter unions” my first thought was – are you kidding?
He attempts to show that RI’s firefighter unions should be stopped in our attempt to fight the implementation of an additional 14 hours being added to our work week. He states that RI fire unions fought to reduce our work week from 56 hours to 42 hours in 1970-71. Again I say, are you kidding?
That was 45 years ago. He wants to rationalize changing our hours back to 56 because that was the norm for firefighters in RI 45 years ago? Mr. Frias is an attorney. Are lawyers working the same hours they did in 1971. What if I increased his weekly hours by 33% every week? Think he’d think that was fair? What if I told him that he’d also have to reduce his hourly wage by over 20%? That is what the cities and towns expect of their firefighters if they are going to save taxpayer money by switching to the 3 platoon, 56 hour, system.
1971 – All in the Family debuted on TV; The Ed Sullivan Show was still on the air; J. Edgar Hoover was still head of the FBI; 1st class postage was 6 cents; and Don McLean’s “American Pie” was released…
1971 - Average Income per year $10,600.00; Average Monthly Rent $150.00; Cost of a gallon of Gas 40 cents; Datsun 1200 Sports Coupe $1,866.00; 3 Bedroom House Chicago $16,500. Things have changed for everyone!
Yes it was a long, long time ago…and firefighter unions, and many other unions across the entire country, fought many hard battles to gain improvements and compensation in the workplace. Heck, it was only 7 short years before, in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed after many contentious demonstrations and protests. Would Mr. Frias, or some other person out there, like to roll the clock back to 1963 and take away the hard fought gains of the civil rights activists?
I think we’ve all improved our lot since 1971, at least I’d hope so. The future is about pushing ever forward, not rolling back to the so-called “good old days”!
Captain - Providence Fire Department
• Steven Frias: Soaked by the firefighters unions
Posted Jul. 1, 2015 at 2:01 AM
Recently, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the North Kingstown Town Council could implement a new fire department platoon structure that increases firefighters’ workweek from 42 to 56 hours. According to North Kingstown Town Council member Carol Hueston, Rhode Island taxpayers could save $75 million to $100 million per year from this reform. However, General Assembly legislation was quickly introduced to give firefighters a 42-hour workweek. Firefighters said this legislation guaranteed them a workweek which they have enjoyed in the past. Rhode Island history shows that firefighters did not always have a 42-hour week and that the shift to one was partly the result of intimidation and binding arbitration.
In 1967, the Cranston firefighters union wanted higher pay and fewer hours. Cranston Mayor James DiPrete Jr. offered the firefighters an 8 percent raise but resisted the request to reduce their workweek from 56 hours to 42 hours because firefighters “spend part of their workweek sleeping.” As a result, the firefighters union began picketing City Hall and the fire station. When some city employees crossed the picket line, they reportedly became the victims of threats. Frank Montanaro, leader of the Cranston firefighters’ union, called the dispute “combat” and picketing spread to all public construction sites in Cranston, thereby disrupting school construction. Cranston Herald editorials noted that the “56-hour workweek” was the “norm” for firefighters “all over the country” and called the picketing a “way to make the residents come to their knees.” The picketing at the schools only came to a halt after a Superior Court judge ruled that it was designed “to coerce, compel, force and bludgeon” officials into submission.
The next year, DiPrete relented. In the spring of 1968, an agreement was reached that gave the firefighters union a 13 percent raise and a reduction in work hours from 56 to 48. Montanaro called the contract “one of the best firemen’s agreements in New England.”
Pleased but not appeased, Montanaro obtained more a few months later. Right before the 1968 election, a new agreement gave the firefighters another pay raise and further reduced their workweek to 42 hours as of July 1, 1971.
DiPrete considered the contract a “milestone.” It soon turned into a millstone around the neck of taxpayers. The reduction from a 56-hour week to a 42 hours helped increase the staffing at the Cranston fire department by about 25 percent in less than five years. At the same time, the pay of firefighters increased by about 35 percent and fire department personnel costs nearly doubled.
Montanaro considered the deal “one of the best in the United States” and indicated he would “send copies of the contract to unions in other cities.” One by one, like a row of dominoes, Rhode Island communities gave way before the firefighter unions’ march to a 42-hour workweek. In 1970, a binding arbitration decision led to Providence adopting a 42-hour workweek. In 1971, Warwick agreed to implement a 42-hour week, after its legal challenge to Rhode Island’s binding arbitration law failed. Those who could have stopped them would not. Those who would have stopped them could not. By 1989, nearly all of Rhode Island’s paid fire departments had gone to a 42 hour workweek.
Soon thereafter, The Providence Journal reported that a United States Commerce Department survey showed that Rhode Island had one of the highest levels of per-capita spending on fire protection in the nation. More recent analyses show Rhode Island is still among the highest.
High firefighter personnel costs are a major reason for Rhode Island’s high property taxes. To help lower Rhode Island’s property taxes, firefighters’ work schedules will need to increase to a 56 hour workweek, like that of many of their peers across the nation. Unless a change is made, Rhode Island taxpayers will continue to get soaked by the firefighters unions, as they have been for more than four decades.
Steven Frias, a twice-monthly contributor, is a regulatory attorney, Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman and the author of "Cranston and Its Mayors: A History."