ROBERT B. REICH is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, INEQUALITY FOR ALL.
Pictured: Local leaders Troy Hesse, Local 1258 Moses Lake and Chris Mortensen , Local 1433 Pasco present Secretary/Treasurer Greg Markley with a token of their appreciation for his help meeting challenges in Moses Lake. Read on for more information on their struggles and ultimate successes,
LOCAL 1258 MOSES LAKE – A Rocky Path, Calling in the Cavalry, Success!
“I pledge allegiance to the flag…..”
How does the president of an IAFF local affiliate get to lead a City Council meeting in the Pledge of Allegiance? The path to that night was rough and rocky. After years of battling for our mere existence, this simple act was validation of the hard work by our Local and our friends and it showed respect from our City leadership that had never been seen before.
Let’s start from the beginning. For many years Local 1258 in Moses Lake has struggled in the same way many other Locals have struggled. Between good old boy politics and misinformation from our detractors in the community, and frustration and apathy within our ranks, we’ve had our share of troubles over the years.
Despite the best efforts of previous Local 1258 leaders, we were floundering and it only seemed to be getting worse. Our morale was terrible – almost hopeless. What could be done? With several newly elected leaders, including then President Chris Mortensen and Vice-President Travis Pulliam, our Local sat down to make a plan for significant change. We knew we had an enormous challenge in front of us but failure was not an option!
We knew education would be the key. We reached out to 2nd District Representative Jeff Wainwright. He was there for anything we needed and he delivered for us constantly! Jeff pointed Chris and Travis to the inaugural Young Firefighters Conference put on by IAFF 7th District VP Ricky Walsh. What a game changer. Not only was the education highly valuable and the history of Organized Labor amazing, the relationships that were seeded during that conference were monumental to us. These relationships included 7th DVP, WSCFF leadership (Kelly Fox, Dennis Lawson, Greg Markley and the executive staff are incredible!), State DVP’s and Local leadership from all over the State. We were overwhelmed by the response to our request for help. As one of the smaller local affiliates in Washington and in the 7th District we thought we may not get the same attention as some of the big boys. Not true. At every level, and by every person contacted we were helped and made stronger. Our problems became their problems and they were determined to help us move forward. We have been given extraordinary guidance and support in every step. Without this leadership and education we would have been doomed, hopeless, or obliterated all together!
The next step was to develop a plan. We identified two major problems. The first was misinformation. The information our City leaders were given to make their decisions was often flawed. It created a “garbage in, garbage out” scenario. The second problem was that the community and decision makers did not know us.
To solve the first problem we needed to figure out how to counter misinformation. We did this in a few ways. We became subject matter experts on our department, city finances and the community as a whole. We spent hundreds of hours researching RCW’s, ordinances, budgets and talking to many people. We made documents and presentations to help make sure that the decision makers were given accurate and pertinent information. We put ourselves in a position to answer any question at any time and speak with confidence, all the while knowing that our adversaries were ready to pounce on us with any misstep. We had several occasions where we confronted a person regarding City finances where we knew the information better than the author of the documents and were able to display that in front of Council members. Knowledge was our power!
The second problem took a lot of effort and time to resolve and will always be a work in progress. How do you get community leaders to know and listen to you? For years we sat at the kitchen table in the station and solved all of the world’s problems over and again. We had all of the solutions but yet “those guys at City Hall” were making another terrible decision. In hindsight, the answer is clear. How were they ever going to make informed decisions? We were the subject matter experts but to them we were nameless, faceless strangers. We never made ourselves available to the people we kept complaining about. They didn’t know who we were or what we were about. We had to get involved and that’s exactly what we did. Slowly we gained relationships and more importantly we gained trust. We continue to foster these relationships and we work hard to put our brand in the spot light to show who we are.
Beyond the official community leaders, we also reached out to different groups in the community and gave presentations on the current status of the fire department from our point of view. We engaged in conversations that helped citizens and community members better understand what their local firefighters do every day. More importantly, we established relationships with people who were interested in, and invested in us. We were very well received. Each time we had great conversations with our citizens, even the skeptics who started the meetings with arms crossed. We realized quickly that the public wants to like firefighters if we just give them a chance. We also learned the importance of having a targeted message for each group and to be ready for any question.
As you may guess, our opposition wasn’t pleased with our efforts. The pushback was strong! During the time we were putting ourselves out the public, we were forbidden to talk to City Council and they were forbidden to talk to us. Intimidation tactics were employed against us. We were attacked publicly with unfounded accusations of sick leave abuse, we had our work schedule revoked after 5 years without any documented concerns of the schedule, and we had layoff notices given to 3 employees without cause. We were maligned on social media by City employees who didn’t know us, and we were made to be the scourge of the City by the media and City officials. We were rocked by the barrage of negativity. We were on the defense just trying to survive. All the while we were trying to negotiate a contract with these same people. The temptation to attack back and fight fire with fire was strong but we had made a commitment to stay above the fray and stand on merit. We doubled our efforts and worked on.
At one juncture, the City considered discontinuing our ambulance service which could have cut half of the firefighters in our City. We were in a tight spot. We made a plan and sent out the call to Ricky, Greg, Jeff and several nearby Local Presidents. The cavalry was on the way. With the help of many of you, we filled the Council Chambers. Some 20 firefighters spoke on our behalf to defend our service and our guys. The effort put forth that night was outstanding. Because of the hard work, commitment and brotherhood demonstrated that night, the City Council decided to look into the matter further and ultimately decided to keep all of us. Words aren’t enough to show the appreciation we have for all of you who showed up that night in December!
As you can imagine, our opposition was even more furious after our show of force. City administration and our Chief were more than unhappy. The fight continued for months. Battle hardened and battle weary we pushed on. We established a community task force of stakeholders from many different positions in the City to look into our service. We worked to involve citizens, business owners, and workers in analyzing the Fire service we provided. This task force became highly scrutinized by the press. In fact, at one time there was a 4 part series in the local newspaper on its “scandalous” activity. Fortunately for us, we kept with our ideals and stayed above board. The worst part was that many people we came to like and respect were roasted by the press and on social media for standing with us. It was torture to watch these great people getting beat up daily. They lost lifelong friends because they chose to stand with and support the firefighters.
We continued to gather and disseminate information on our problems and possible positive solutions. Three events changed our department. First, the longest serving City Manager in Washington was removed from office during a public City Council meeting because of some of the findings we presented, along with other political troubles that had been brewing. Next, the Fire Chief was forced to retire – unceremoniously. And finally, Moses Lake had performed non-emergent out of town transports with on duty personnel for about 15 years. This was a drain on department resources and morale. We made a strong case on the negative financial and service delivery effects of this practice. A few months later out of town transports were suspended. These events improved the quality of our service to the community and eliminated our biggest obstacles.
After a year in this brawl, we were exhausted. Our limited resources of people made every presentation, every public event, every training difficult. Our Local was spent. But there was no time to rest. Elections were coming up it was vital to have qualified people on our City Council. Back to work we went. Again, our IAFF leaders were there to guide us on this most important journey. We interviewed and chose candidates to endorse. We received guidance from the WSCFF on how best to send mailers, perform targeted door knocking and support our candidates. Several Locals made donations to help offset the substantial cost of fighting for our friends. The money was greatly appreciated and was very helpful but the gesture was extremely powerful and it helped to re-energize many of us.
Once again, firefighters from around the State came to our small city to help with our elections. It is very humbling to have brothers and sisters come to our aid in such force. Many of the Locals in our area came to stand with us. What a great bunch of true friends we have! And a number of firefighters who had no connection to Moses Lake or any of us came to help out as well. These incredible people came because they knew we were in need. To us, they summed up what it means to be a part of this IAFF.
Moving forward. How do we avoid the storm that we went through in the future? We will be involved! We will maintain a positive influence in our community. Our firefighters have done a good job with car washes, MDA, breakfast fundraisers, hosting dinners, selling pink shirts for cancer awareness, softball games against our friends in Blue and much more. One of our promotional ideas was to provide “dinner with the firefighters” as an auction item for a local civic group. Not only did this raise $600 for this local charity but it put 8 prominent people at our supper table to break bread. What a great night. We did a presentation, ate dinner, told war stories and oh by the way, we got to show them that firefighters are pretty nice guys. At the end of the night a comment from one of the gentleman stuck with me. He said that he had driven by the fire station on his way to and from work every day for 25 years and he had no idea what we did until that night. This reinforced that we have to get out of the Station and talk with people.
Beyond our local activities we must continue our education at the State and National levels. We look back and see that despite our best efforts, had we not participated at the conferences and classes early on, we would not have had the tools or the relationships to get to where we are today. We will make sending our new members to the Young Firefighters conference a very high priority. We will be at education, legislation and as many other sessions as possible including ALTS and the National Convention. Every place we have been, we have walked away stronger, smarter and with better friends! We know the financial cost of going to classes. Believe me, the challenges of covering shifts and the financial burden is very tough for a small Local like ours. We struggle with both at times but we realize the importance of being connected with the rest of our State and to be on the cutting edge of information that impacts our health, safety and benefits.
We hope the story of Local 1258 can help inspire other Locals that have suffered through some of the same struggles. Let us assure you that if you utilize the resources provided to you through this great union you can also be successful. What we have learned, more than anything over the last couple of years is that unity works. We are optimistic about our future and we have so many of you to thank for that. Thank you, be safe and know that if you need help that the cavalry is waiting, including Local 1258!
….with liberty and justice for all.
Washington State Council of Fire Fighters Affiliated with IAFF, WSLC and AFL-CIO-CLC