As another summer of wildfires approaches, it is in the interest of every Californian to understand that California’s firefighters’ union, the California Professional Firefighters, is one of the most politically powerful unions in the state. This union has the power to help solve the growing problem of wildfires in California, but to more effectively do so they will have to make some tough and selfless political choices.
As it is, California’s firefighters’ union is a partisan political machine that is not standing up to environmental activists that, for decades, have undermined responsible forest management. At the same time, California’s firefighters receive union negotiated pay and benefits that have exempted them from – to use a term favored by the leftists their union aligns with – the “lived experience” of most Californians.
These problems are related. If firefighters received compensation based more on market rates instead of those rates their unions “negotiated” with politicians the unions helped elect, there would be more money to hire more firefighters. There would also be more money left over to spend on programs to prevent wildfires, instead the money running out every year after spending billions to extinguish wildfires.
Before going further, it is important to establish two things: First, to criticize the agenda of public sector unions does not constitute criticism of all unions, in all circumstances. Second, to question whether current pay scales for California’s firefighters are affordable or appropriate in no way diminishes the respect and appreciation we have for their service.
Today the most recent pay and benefits data provided by the State Controller show that the average pay and benefits for a full time firefighter working for a city in California in 2020 was $256,000. That’s a 24 percent increase in just two years. Note that this average includes administrative and other non first responders that work for these fire departments but make far less, which pulls down the numbers. Among cities that included the back payments to restore solvency to their pension plans as compensation, Santa Clara in 2020 was the city with the highest average pay and benefits for their full time fire department personnel, at $352,000.
These amounts are mind-boggling. The average base salary of a full-time fire department employee in a California city in 2020 was $115,000. To put this in perspective, according to Military.com, a staff sergeant with 10 years experience in the U.S. Army in 2020 earned base pay of $42,000. An Army captain with 10 years experience earned $79,000. Similar rates of pay apply across the U.S. Military. When it comes to including compensation apart from base pay, the disparity between California’s city firefighters and members of the military remains striking. According to a 2021 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the total cost to the Department of Defense per service member averages $140,000 per year. This is only 55 percent of what it costs to taxpayers in California’s cities to pay their firefighters.
It’s easy enough to say cities with high tax bases like Manhattan Beach or Santa Clara have the financial wherewithal to pay their firefighters whatever they ask. But massive compensation packages for firefighters have financially strapped other cities, such as Placentia that had to completely restructure their fire department in order to get their budget under control. But either way, excessive and unaffordable pay and benefits for California’s unionized firefighters is only half the problem.
The lesser known fact about California firefighters’ unions is that the union is not apolitical, but instead, like other public unions in the state, firmly entrenched in progressive politics. The firefighters’ union backed Prop. 15 in 2020, which would have caused business properties to be reassessed at market rates, eliminating one of the last advantages private businesses have in California. This is also the union that marched with the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in 2019 (pre-COVID), a teachers union that is aggressively pushing to serve up a hard-left program of indoctrination in the already failing public schools of Los Angeles.
The California Professional Firefighters union engages in politics with an extraordinary degree of political and financial power. A few years ago when asked, off the record, why a Southern California businessman running for city council took campaign contributions from the firefighters union, his response was compelling. “They are either going to spend a million bucks to elect me, or they are going to spend it to elect my opponent.” The financial power of California’s public sector unions is well documented.
A Tremendous Opportunity
Putting an end to cataclysmic wildfires, which are the result of decades of bad policies, ought to be the top political priority of the firefighters’ union. But if you visit the California Professional Firefighters website, you can easily find a press release from a few years ago, titled “CPF President Praises Newsom Commitment to Wildfire Response and Prevention.” Newsom does not deserve this praise. Almost all of Newsom’s significant actions are oriented to wildfire response, not wildfire prevention. Here’s what the firefighters’ union can do that might, within a few years, solve the problem of super fires, and earn the admiration and gratitude of millions of Californians:
(1) Take a public stand that policies and spending on wildfire prevention is as important as wildfire response.
(2) Demand legislative and legal action to streamline the process for property managers and property owners to engage in controlled burns.
(3) Partner with the logging industry to restore responsible logging with a goal of doubling or tripling the annual timber harvest in California. The state’s timber harvest has been reduced to 25 percent of what was being removed in the 1990s.
(4) Publicize and advocate for the successful “uneven-aged” forest management and total ecosystem management practices that saved Shaver Lake’s forests in 2020, and the forests around South Lake Tahoe in 2021.
(5) Aggressively challenge and help defend against the environmentalist litigators and lobbyists that have prevented responsible forest management and allowed California’s forests to turn into tinder boxes.
(6) Politely, but publicly and unequivocally challenge attention grabbing wildfire-inspired stunts, such as new Electric Vehicle mandates, as deflecting from the necessary solutions involving forestry management.
In addition to saving forests, homes and lives by preventing fires, reforming the state’s forest management policies would create new jobs in the timber industry, lower the cost of lumber for home construction, and save billions spent on the fire lines each summer.
One thing the firefighters’ union is very good at is winning. By using its political power to back critical fire prevention efforts, the firefighters’ union would score a huge win for all Californians.