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Philly Firefighters Deceived By Their Own Union

From childhood, the image of selfless firefighters willing to risk their lives for others represents the very best of humanity. But the recent class-action lawsuit filed by Philadelphia firefighters against Local 22, the International Association of Fire Fighters, reveals a disconcerting reality lurking beneath the hero’s mantle. 

Philadelphia firefighters Joe Farrell and Pat Viola claim their union breached its “duty of fair representation” – which is enshrined in state law – by steering them and other rank-and-file firefighters away from maximizing their pension benefits. 

This lawsuit asserts there was a distressing scheme in which union officials allegedly provided deceptive financial advice to fellow firefighters. The union’s alleged concealment of firefighters’ option to sell back their unused vacation days – a practice that would enhance their pension benefits – constitutes a betrayal of trust. Such malfeasance would impact not only the affected firefighters, but their beneficiaries, as well.  

The tactic may have deprived more than a hundred firefighters and their families of their rightful pension earnings, potentially imposing or exacerbating financial hardships in their retirement years. 

The motive for such a betrayal appears to have been the union’s desire to limit the number of firefighters who would avail themselves of a costly benefit granted in the contract. The ultimate goal was to avoid public scrutiny of the benefit cost, which might lead the city to negotiate a change to the benefit in the next contract.  

At the same time, senior leadership and union officials allegedly benefitted by enhancing their own pensions through the same vacation sellbacks. As a past union president, I can attest this conduct is unconscionable. The union has a fiduciary duty to represent the best interests of their members and ensure they know their rights. 

Firefighters accept a daunting trade off – they risk making their spouse alone and their children parentless in order to protect the community they serve. Yet death isn’t the only hazard they confront; firefighters often face injury at alarming rates – resulting in major surgery and disability.

They assume these risks willingly, but with the confidence that their families will be supported with deferred wages through pension benefits if the unthinkable occurs. Meanwhile, they are not eligible for Social Security benefits.

Of course, any proposal’s cost must be balanced between respect for the taxpayer and the employee, along with an analysis of how public safety would be affected. But cost is not the only factor that needs to be considered in changing benefits. For example, if a proposed change will lead to a mass exodus of senior and command personal, the savings must be weighed against the loss of institutional knowledge and competency.      

Firefighters’ battle for the pension benefits they have rightfully earned is not just a legal maneuver. It symbolizes a fight for dignity, respect, and the recognition of sacrifices made. It’s about ensuring those who dedicate their lives to serving communities aren’t cheated out of the security they (and their loved ones) deserve in retirement.  

In this case, after having had union bureaucrats allegedly fail them, the firefighters have asked the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm, to vindicate their legal rights. They are seeking compensation and accountability for the breach of the “duty of fair representation” that mandates unions act in good faith without bias, an obligation sorely neglected if the allegations against Local 22 hold true. 

The efforts of these brave firefighters to seek justice serve as a wake-up call, highlighting the need for a thorough examination of the union’s practices and accountability mechanisms. It’s time to scrutinize and reform a system that allows such betrayals to occur within the very institutions entrusted with firefighters’ welfare.  

Just as we expect flames to be extinguished to protect our communities, so should we also expect justice. It is only right to safeguard the future of those who selflessly stand on the front lines and rush in as others run out. 

This article originally appeared in RealClear Pennsylvania.

Frank Ricci

Frank was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano and has testified before Congress. He has lectured at the Reagan Library and has been a lead consultant on several studies for the Yale School of Medicine. Frank has appeared on Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Cavuto Live, Hardball, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, and other notable news shows. He is a contributing author to several books and a contributor to the Daily Caller. Frank retired as a Battalion Chief & Union President for New Haven Fire Fighters and has been awarded numerous commendations including the medal of valor. He serves on the advisory board for Fire Engineering Magazine. Frank lives with his wife in Wallingford, CT.

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