A Conspiracy of Dunces
By Tom O'Connor, Treasurer
The political heat is turning up on the San Francisco Fire Department, and it appears as if all of the participants involved are hell-bent on fostering the demise of our once proud institution. The players in this drama range from a newly-hostile segment of the Board of Supervisors, to participants in a lawsuit filed for paramedic overtime, to an EMS Chief and some Rescue Captains filing a grievance against the Executive Board of your Union, to the City Attorney’s recent raid on firehouses in a futile search for alcohol, and finally right down to the Civil Grand Jury investigating firehouse relations.

The timing of all of these actions could not be worse, but perhaps more importantly, the cumulative affect of these activities can only result in further deterioration of the Fire Department’s public image. And on the eve of yet another fiscal crisis, any loss of public confidence will only erode our strength

to weather the impending budget cuts.

What’s most depressing about all of this activity is that this erosion of our public image is being used to leverage the gains of selfish individuals and even some groups from within our own department...what we shall call the Conspiracy of Dunces.

Board of Supervisors

When Green Party member Matt Gonzalez became President of the Board of Supervisors, San Franciscans were shocked. How could the most Democratic City in America vote a Green Party member as its President? Well, very easily you see, the Board could not agree on any other Supervisor, so Gonzalez became President by default.

Supervisor Gonzalez soon began to show his stripes by not endorsing Prop. A, the Hetch Hetchy measure that was to become the greatest public works project since the Bay Bridge. The Supervisor then voted against 34 MOU’s for the City’s labor unions and then finally moved on to perhaps the most important legislative achievement in history... Supervisor Gonzalez sponsored a bill that got rid of pet “ownership” and replaced it with pet “guardianship.” San Francisco was never prouder...

The one thing the Supervisor did though, was to instill a sense of fear into other members of the Board by wielding his power very strategically. Any dissension from Gonzalez’s program and your bills were likely to “die” in committee, or worse, you could be removed from a committee. These are two things that every legislator fears. Once this power was recognized, Supervisor Gonzalez started to take aim at the Police and Fire departments.

During the last budget crisis, the Fire Department took some very big hits to suppression, and was lucky to avoid even more cuts. During the budget negotiations, the Supervisor had been lobbied hard by Margaret Brodkin (from Coleman Advocates for Children), perhaps the department’s greatest enemy, and the major proponent for cutting our operators. The Supervisor was also lobbied by members of the Fire Department who wanted to see cuts made on only one side, suppression.

After the Operators and Chiefs were cut, and the budget was settled, the Supervisor then introduced a measure to change the MOU deadlines for the police and fire departments, in order to force us into arbitration every year. Then, the day after his second place finish in the Mayoral race, Gonzalez stated the he “would take on the powerful unions and the patronage system of the police and fire departments.”

With a position like this, it was easy to see the writing on the wall...regardless of the outcome of the Mayor’s race, the fire department was in for a rough year.

FLSA Lawsuit

This past Halloween was the deadline for yet another Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) lawsuit, and it appears that the City may take another big hit when it loses this suit also. The lawsuit basically states that if medics have been working 48-hour workweeks solely on an ambulance, then they are eligible for overtime for the last three years.

This would be a major hit for the City during these economically challenging times, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars.

What is most interesting though, is the political basis for the lawsuit. Every medic received an unsigned letter, in an envelope with no return address, urging them to join the lawsuit. The letter stated:

“There will be more budget cuts for the Department. It is probable that the next round of budget cuts will be borne in a larger part by EMS. The first round of cuts were borne primarily by suppression in the number of Assistant Deputy Chiefs, Battalion Chiefs, Chief’s Aides, and the temporary closure of Engine 33. It is likely that EMS will only have to bear a part of that burden this time around.”

Doesn’t sound like the basis for a lawsuit so far, does it? In fact, it only sounds like a fair labor strategy to try and spread budget cuts equally. But if you thought this way, you would be wrong...read on:

“This lawsuit is not about seeking monetary damages. It’s using the threat of a huge cash payout to gain a guarantee from the department to hire more H-3’s in the future.”

So let’s get this straight...if the City is broke, and they get sued, the remedy to fix this lawsuit is to hire more employees who can possibly sue them again? Sounds like a plausible legal strategy. Or maybe the City will react with its’s ultimate weapon...the 40 hour workweek for ambulances? Insiders are already stating that a 40-hour a week scenario is already being worked on.

Nice job on the lawsuit gang...

Union Grievance

There has also been a recent grievance filed by EMS Chief Groothoff and some rescue captains. The brunt of their grievance appears to be dismay over the Mainline articles that have chronicled the decline of the department as a result of a poorly planned merger of the Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Fire Department. The 163 page grievance also alleges that Rescue Captains haven’t been represented adequately.

This of course, all occurred while your Union was paying nearly eight thousand dollars in legal fees to represent rescue captains in arbitration over back wages they are owed...back wages from when they were members of Local 790. That’s right, as your Union dollars are being expended to support your Union brothers and sisters, they are causing more Union dollars to be spent on a grievance against the Union.

Not very nice...

Raid on Firehouses

As recently as our deadline, the City Attorney’s office was raiding firehouses in a futile search for alcohol. Word has it, the investigators were even armed with a “map” of what lockers and closets to look in. How sad that the investigators could be duped into investigating such false accusations.

Even sadder though is that groups from within the fire department would make such spurious claims in order to advance their own personal agendas. (To their credit, the newly formed paramedic/firefighter association has disavowed themselves from their previous president, who initially made these allegations.)

But the ugly aftertaste of such untruths does nothing to strengthen the fire department on the eve of another round of budget cuts.

Civil Grand Jury

It has just come to light that a Civil Grand Jury has been investigating firehouse workplace conditions, or specifically, if medics and firefighters can get along. Rumor has it though, that after months of investigating, it appears that the investigation may be shifting to mismanagement by the EMS Command and the Emergency Medical Services Agency. Stay tuned for more on this one...

The Need to Make Peace

In our last Mainline, it was brought to light that certain factions within the Fire Department were using secret websites to plot against the Union, and the Department itself. In fact, one email by an EMS Chief read, “Much is already in the works on a number of fronts and any formal efforts either against the Union or the City need a well thought out and executed plan.”

Well, it appears as if we can now see what was “in the works”, as well as the “number of fronts” for their plan. Every one of the efforts mentioned above though, just seem to be good old fashioned Union-busting. Except in this case, our “conspiracy of dunces” are using the Board of Supervisors, the City Attorney’s office, the Civil Grand Jury, and even our own Union grievance procedures to bring down our Union, and more importantly, our department. Ultimately, all that they can hope to achieve is a further weakening of the Department, and even more damage to our public image...an image that is only beginning to be repaired after the tumultuous years of the consent decree.

What this ‘Conspiracy of Dunces” fails to realize though, is that they will not succeed in achieving whatever goals they might have. All of their efforts may financially drain both the Union and the Department, but they will not be defeat either. In fact, the only “win” these conspirators will get will be further reduction of fire department personnel and resources...ultimately defeating only themselves in the process.

It is now beyond the time for the various factions of our department to come together and make peace. Any more infighting and we are all doomed to further cutbacks...and any other reductions in our department will not mean just layoffs and firehouse closures...it will mean more injuries, and perhaps, even deaths. It is time to make peace.

Regardless of what happens on all of these “fronts” though, this Union, and this Department, will stand tall and weather the storm. Firefighters and paramedics know the truth, and the truth is that if we stand together, we will be strong. And no matter how many attacks against us, no matter how many different directions they come from, we will prevail. But only if we make peace from within first.


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