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A wildfire in Northern California (Photo: USDA.gov)

Questioning Firefighters Union Political Priorities As Wildfire Season Approaches

The California Professional Firefighters union engages in politics with an extraordinary degree of political and financial power

By Edward Ring, March 31, 2022 6:15 am

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.

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Edward Ring
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4 thoughts on “Questioning Firefighters Union Political Priorities As Wildfire Season Approaches

  1. Thank you, Mr Ring, for this informative article and common sense advice!
    Unfortunately, it will fall on “deaf” union ears, as it does not benefit them.

  2. Wow, Ed…I don’t even know where to start. It’s like I am reading a CNN hit piece, that goes against “the agenda.” Cherry picking salary and benefits is ridiculous. What you leave out, in those “massive salaries” is how many hours those firefighters worked to earn that pay. But that doesn’t fit your narrative. I am a firefighter in a large California city. Our last academy had allocated spots for 48 recruits. We had 32 start. We are down to 26. People don’t want to work. Don’t know how lowering the pay of firefighters would attract more applicants and fill more positions when we can’t even fill an academy at our “high rate of pay.” I drive 2.4 hours to work (one way) because I cannot afford to live anywhere close to the city in which I work. That’s fine, I signed up for it. I get forced to stay at work after every single shift because of our chronic short staffing. Tell me again how lowering our pay would attract more applicants and fill more positions.

    Thanks for your anti-union hit piece. I haven’t read something so full of shit since the economy tanked in 2008 and we were everyone’s enemies.

    The funny part is that I bet the vast majority of firefighters agree with your opinions on what is going on regarding the wildfires, homeless, teachers’ unions, energy, etc (from your prior articles). It’s a shame that you now make me assume that everything you have written about prior is absolute nonsense…much like this piece.

    1. Tommy,
      You have me at a disadvantage because I don’t really want to trade personal jibes with individual firefighters. I’ve never met a firefighter I didn’t like, although some of your union’s more zealous operatives have been pretty aggressive. The primary point of the article, and maybe I should have put more emphasis on it, is that for God’s sake if you’re going to make a quarter million per year, on average, at least quit marching with the CTA and pushing for every tax increase that’s ever been proposed. Instead, stand up to the environmentalists that have gone way too far and have tied up development in this state up in knots.

      Why do you think your housing costs are so ridiculous? Do you think you’re the only person commuting for over an hour each way to work? Maybe if we had a timber industry again in this state, and spent public money on water projects instead of bullet trains, and deregulated housing construction, it wouldn’t cost nearly so much to build homes, and people could afford to buy them. Use all that union power to change the rules in this state, because the rules as they are have priced EVERYONE out of home ownership and a decent standard of living. Do that, and maybe you wouldn’t need to make so much money to afford to live. That’s a win win. Instead, your union is backing a bunch of leftist garbage that is destroying a great state.

      California could be producing its own lumber, aggregate, natural gas, and fertilizer, to name a few essentials. Instead we’ve regulated those industries nearly out of existence and import most of it from other states and nations. California has room for plenty of new towns and cites, and could expand its freeways and build new roads. We could produce all the water we need by capturing runoff and recycling wastewater. We could keep Diablo Canyon open and build new nuclear and natural gas power plants. Did you know the timber companies used to maintain the fire roads and fire breaks along the transmission line corridors, in return for logging rights? Your union could fight to bring back these common sense ways to revitalize our state. Instead you guys march with the CTA. Quit doing that and I for one will shut up about your compensation.

      Fix your union’s politics to take on the environmentalists, and we can save the bickering over your compensation for later. You can have it. But quit using your union to destroy our way of life.

  3. I recall back in 1985 or so California Correctional Peace Officers came up with the term Parity Bill. The reason for it was CHP we’re considered the darlings of the statehouse always winning the best overall negotiation packages for their people. While CDC, lacked way behind the eight ball as, I myself was horribly angry being ordered over trying to ESCAPE the prison feeling similar to those old convict movies still shakin’ dat bush boss!” Theme! With get tough on crime three strikes being passed into law, prison population exploded, suddenly, my prison suffered 48% staff shortage as few people wanted to be prison guards. Lots of fighting took place between union officals and top administrative staff how to solve the many issues. Then, came the big RUSH to build modular Prisons all over our state. After our State Capital rushed the parity bill through, the BIG RACE for bigger and better employee contracts hit the states L.E./Corrections even state mental hospitals like a Tasumi hitting our coastline—The entire states, city county went crazy demanding the BBD! The Bigger Better Deal! I recall CCPOA’s “The Sunshine Package” as it was presented to us C/O’s. I remember as a young C/O, I stood up at a rather large union meeting announcing that I done a bit of research taken from a very bright man regarding the common mans payment for his labors versus the states personnel compensation packages. He did a study comparing private compensations versus public, and how it will lead to states going broke. Remember, I believe it was in the late 70’s CSEA or Ca. Teachers Association negotiated the first state provided Healthcare plan plus a pay increase! My point here, is these two big wins long ago have resulted in what has become unsustainable.

    That night at my union meeting I almost got beer mugs thrown at me attempting to explain from my notes I had regarding asking/demanding more money when at the time, top pay was $48,000 a year. Plus bennies! Overtime was constant. Most of it ordered overs, such as important holidays. I explained regular taxpayers earned $38,500 a year having required four year degrees. I also stated it was NOT ethical to ask for higher wages! Benefits, uniform allowance, fine! I almost created a riot! The Pizza Parlor owner threatened to kick us all out that night!

    I slit my own throat that night. Whole Chapter got barred from ever going back for beer and union biz.

    Parody: When the Gov signed it. What the bill meant was all L.E/Corrections was to get such and such percentage of Long Beach P.D. (Highest Earning then) and the CHP considerations at the time. Negotiations turned into instant competition to see who could get the biggest piece of the state pie! As if a pie graph was on the white board. Cut into slices. Who? Gets this much of the pie? Who gets less? It became hell on wheels! Then the teachers got really really angry! Medical workers in prisons and jails even nursing staff demanded Peace Officer status BECAUSE they worked with inmates! Institutional Firefighters won peace officer status. Like an out of control high wind blown wildfire our states monies burned like unending ashes as the greedy people went berserk demanding more! They got more.

    Far more than the private guy or gal can afford to get deducted from their paycheck. These people are the blue collar workforce. The one’s keeping the sewage going, the lights on. Independent people working.

    This second, my teacher daughter cannot hardly afford rent, utilities, even taxes being single as a two year teacher. Much of her dollars are gone before she even receives her check. Yet, she works 80 to well over a hundred hours per week trying to create this what I call horse and pony show for parents night coming up. Mandated class planning for the next day. Grade three.

    Life just sucks. Fairness is not fair. Justice is only a grand theme.

    Then, corruption comes into play… Stopping here.

    So much $$$, so few happy with any of it. Then, there the one’s that lost the game of life. The one’s laying face down on the hot pavement three blocks from my house.


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