Louisville Firefighter: "The working class will not stand idly by"

On March 2, 2011, hundreds of union members and their community allies rallied in downtown Louisville to express their support for public workers, education, public services, and for all workers, especially those in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio who are fighting for their rights.

The mood was electric as the crowd cheered on eloquent speakers including firefighter Brian O’Neill, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 345 Louisville Professional Firefighters. He has asked us to share his comments:

“I would like to thank Ms. Scott for organizing this event and inviting the LPFF to be a part of it. Thanks to the members of LPFF Local #345 for allowing me to represent them and speak on their behalf. Mostly, thanks to all of the people who have come out here to show their support for public workers and make a statement with their presence that the working class will not stand idly by and watch their hard earned rights get taken away by corporate and financial powers and the politicians that they have bought and paid for.

Make no mistake - what is happening in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio … and is threatening to happen in so many other areas of our great nation … is an attack on unions, and an attack on the ability of workers to organize and collectively bargain for their rights. There are many on the far right that want to see our nation return to the economics of the nineteenth century. They use terms like the ‘FREE MARKET’ and ‘RIGHT TO WORK’, but what does that really mean?

That means that wealthy plutocrats, the heads of corporations and financial institutions, have the freedom to do whatever they wish without oversight, without safety regulations. That they have the freedom to keep every bit of the wealth that their employees earn for them - while the workers have the right to work for whatever scraps the bosses feel like dropping off the table.

They want a return to the conditions that packed hundreds of people desperate to work seven days a week for pennies, into a textile plant like the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York. On a Saturday in 1911, a fire in that factory caused the deaths of 146 workers. Most of the exit doors had been locked to keep workers from taking needed breaks in the stairwells, and the rickety fire escape collapsed under the weight of people trying to save themselves. Workers could not get out, and firefighters could not get in to save them.

They want a return to the conditions that make workers so desperate, that they will take whatever job they can at whatever pay they can get, regardless of the lack of benefits or safety standards. Like when our own firefighters worked a continuous shift, and only had two days off a month. It took the organizing power of our union to earn for us the right to work one day on, and one day off – and eventually one day on with two off – so that now, while we spend one third of our lives serving our communities, we now have the other 2 to enjoy the fruits of our labor with our families.

When workers began organizing in the late 19th and early 20th century, the corporate and financial powers (along with their government influence) did all that they could to prevent it – from firing people, taking their property, or even sending out hired thugs to threaten or beat them and their families, burn down their homes, or even murder them. The courage and solidarity of those people built the foundations of the American workplace and the American worker as we know it today. The 8 hour work day-unions, the 40 hour work week-unions, the concept of a weekend-unions, and worker’s compensation laws – unions.

By the 1950’s, one of every three American workers belonged to a union – and at that time the middle class was as strong as it has ever been. The worker had more buying power, a higher standard of living, and a larger share of the wealth that they created. But the corporate fat cat’s want to keep every bit of the wealth that their workers create for them.

The average U.S. CEO in 1965 earned 24 times more than an average worker. That ratio grew to 35 in 1978. As corporations realized that they were having to pay fair wages and benefits to American workers, they realized that they could simply move their operations overseas – exploit those workers by recreating the unsafe sweatshops that once existed in our own country, pay those workers scraps, and boost their own profits. Private sector union membership declined, and at the same time corporate revenues continued to rise. By 2007, the average U.S. CEO earned 262 times that of the average worker. And yet we still see politicians that believe that the path to economic recovery is to give more money and tax breaks to those corporations.

Trickle Down Economics Does Not Work. In our recent economic crisis, working families have lost over $10 Trillion in wealth (income, homes, benefits, retirement) - our economy shed 10 million jobs - and corporate profits are up 44%. Bankers bonuses since the bailout are over $30 Billion and not a single individual in the financial sector has seen the inside of a jail cell.

So what does this mean to our public sector workers? They can’t pack up and move overseas. Our children are educated by teachers right here, and receive police and fire protection right here. We are one of the last obstacles to these plutocrats. Public sector unions are one of the most effective groups when it comes to mobilizing people to vote – and they know that we are not going to vote for those that wish to take away workers’ rights. Our pensions are a great benefit earned by a life of hard work and sacrifice, and wall street institutions want to get their hands on that money. They did such a wonderful job with the housing market, so it is no wonder why we do not want them taking over our pension funds.

The average public employee pension is only $28k a year, yet millionaire right wing pundits will find that one case of a worker that put in enough hours and stayed enough years to earn a much higher pension and try to use it as a typical example. Never mind that the worker put in the extra hours and the extra years to earn that pension.

By trying to break up public sector unions, the corporate, financial, and political powers are trying to remove an obstacle to their power structure. What the American public needs to know, what voters need to know, is that every right and every benefit that we have was negotiated and agreed upon by BOTH parties – labor and management. Collective bargaining works and it works both ways. It is not over until an agreement is reached between both parties.

The powers working to destroy public sector unions in WI and IN are misdirecting people’s attentions. Rather than comparing the haves and the have nots, they are trying to drive a wedge between the have nots and the have a littles. They point to teachers, police officers, and firefighters and say “Look what they have that you don’t – let’s take it from them,” instead of, “let’s get it for you.” What we as proud union members say is, “Do not push down the middle class, elevate those out of work back into it.” Bring your factories back to America, cut your earnings back from 262 times that of the average worker to a modest 100 times – and put America back to work.

For all of our brothers and sisters fighting for their rights - the IAFF stands with you. Thank you very much.”

Brian O’Neill

Secretary/Treasurer of the Louisville Professional Firefighters

LPFF Local #345


Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations

National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems

Economic Policy Institute