Friday, January 05, 2007

Willy Week Plays the Loser in Slamming PDX Firefighters

[disclaimer: I have an intimate working relationship with Portland firefighters, although I am not one and am not a member of the union...]

Now we're really not doing our karma any favors, since Willamette Week editor Hank Stern was kind enough to link to Carla's karma-busting story on David Wu yesterday--and now I'm about to take a lash to his editorial staff, who put together the weekly Winners and Losers column.

I can appreciate the quick-hitting, black-and-white nature of the column, but that's no license to grossly misrepresent a situation with an unnecessary snark attack that makes the paper seem needlessly provocative in order to move papers. And that's what they've done in marking Portland firefighters as among this week's losers:
Portland firefighters sullied their heroic image recently by filing a bogus grievance that runs counter to city voters' wishes. The grievance protests delaying until 2007 the swearing-in of 11 new firefighters. Why's that a problem? Because Portlanders voted overwhelmingly last November to put all new fire and police hires starting in 2007 into the state retirement system instead of the city's deficit-riddled system.
What's primarily dishonest about this encapsulation of the PF&PDR is the idea that the grievance "runs counter" to voters' wishes. In fact, if anything it upholds them by having the ordinance take effect on January 1--not retroactively to November.

We're talking here about 11 preselected trainees about to enter the fire academy, at which point they would have been sworn in and granted membership in the union, eventually riding to actual calls on special training rigs with veteran firefighters on board. They don't make full firefighter money just yet, but they do get a bump from the $11 an hour in the first stage of the training process. They were offered jobs with the Bureau upon completion of the training, and the entire process of recruitment to placement is massively scheduled in, before the election.

I am no encyclopedia of law, but I cannot think of any situation where I've ever heard of one being applied retroactively without any mention of retroactivity in the law itself. To the contrary, this particular ordinance was explicitly set to take effect January 1, 2007. So why on earth would people given explicit, conditionally guaranteed hire dates in advance of then be subject to it? I have no idea, and the union doesn't seem to, either.

Some days earlier The O published an editorial that lauded the move to hold off the swearing-in. The deal happened under threat-of-resolution duress from Commissioner Saltzman, who curiously runs neither Police nor Fire, but seems to take as much if not more interest in them than his own bureaus. But the tone of the editorial was more congratulatory in that a working solution was reached, rather than that it had to be done lest the voters rise with pitchfork and fire. Now that the union has protested the arrangement, WWeek decides Jan 1 means Dec 14, and that these $17 an hour trainees are getting greedy britches.

Another angle to the story, however, is left untreated by WWeek. In an O article reporting on the grievance, the union VP cites a bargaining issue related to the trainees not being sworn, but entering the academy:
The union wants the city to "cease and desist" from employing unsworn firefighters and swear in the new firefighters, retroactive to their date of hire, while restoring all benefits, the grievance says.

Paul Corah, a vice president of the firefighters association, said the union doesn't want anyone who is not sworn in as a firefighter, and thus not represented by the bargaining unit, to begin the training academy.

"They're not protected by the union," Corah said. "When these 11 new firefighters got hired, they expected to be sworn in under the existing retirement system. Now, all of a sudden, they change it. I don't think it's fair."
What's 'bogus' about that? Take issue with it on the basis of the ordinance and the bargaining rules, but don't belittle the fair right to grievance by portraying members as wanting to suck blood from the City stone.

That's not to say that the union has handled this well, however. In reportage, unless his comments were clipped or misconstrued, union chief Jack Finders essentially signed off on the deal when it was made, and even seemed appreciative that they'd allowed the bump in pay beginning on the original hire date. That's also the impression Sten's office got, based on comments by head staffer Rich Rodgers.

So the city was a little blindsided by the grievance, which you'll see Finders doesn't comment on, favoring Corah instead. And Rodgers makes the reasonable point that expectations are for superior earnings in the state retirement system compared to the current version--although disability is also an essential component for an occupation rife with legitimately serious injuries.

But that also makes WWeek's portrayal full of crap. If the money is better should you be sworn in after Jan 1, there's no financial incentive for the union's grievance, and thus making them out to be "taking what they can get" is not only pungent but inaccurate.

Something needed to be done about the system, and something was. The corrections in the lack of oversight over claims and in membership of the review boards were well needed. To a certain extent the claims of layabout police and firefighters on cushy disability were so much hype; because of budget cuts the number of light duty positions had been cut in both bureaus over the years, meaning there was no place for moderately injured workers to go except full disability. But stories like the firefighter on disability and earning a check in Iraq killed the reality on this issue. And it's also a shame that it's Fire that gets nailed as much as the Police Bureau for the system; Police had far more cases of abuse and lack of oversight if I understand correctly.

Taking what you were promised is nothing like taking what you can get, but when it comes to readership primed by sensational headlines, I guess WWeek is taking who they can get.