An open response to the Journal of Business’ open letter to the Workers of City Hall.
Dear Journal of Business Editorial Staff:
I write this letter as a member of Local 29 - the city firefighters’ union - a member of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce (Greater Spokane), and as a citizen of Spokane.
Everyone knows that business is the economic engine of our city. Your fine publication showcases and promotes regional businesses that are directly responsible for the success of Spokane. We firefighters, more than anyone, want to see local businesses flourish. I think you would be hard pressed to find a group of people who are more willing to give (and have given their all) for the physical structures of business, the employees and owners of Spokane businesses and their families. We are sure that you know, that like the military that protects our freedoms, your firefighters are willing to lay it on the line to protect you, your business, your customers and the entire infrastructure of a city. Without protecting this infrastructure and human population, chances are Spokane’s days would be numbered. To say the least, that would be bad for business. We are intertwined with each other and dependent upon each other - as it has been since the earliest days of our nation and our city.
You didn’t say much about how it is that our wages are determined. Simply put, our wages and working conditions are basically derived by comparison to similar cities in similar economic conditions. Both sides (labor and administration) negotiate along these lines and binding arbitration assures a fair settlement for all (and also forbids us from striking). When comparable firefighter wages go up, ours could go up in a future contract. Likewise, if there is an economic downturn and wages fall, ours could follow suit.
Your letter states that as a public relations gesture, we should lower our wages. With that in mind, I would like to tell you about our experience with your suggestion. A few years ago, the city administration came to the city’s three unions and asked if they would make some concessions to help them out of a financial bind they were in. This request was brought to the firefighters of Local 29. A vote was taken. Overwhelmingly, we voted to gift the city with 48 hours of free labor from each and every firefighter (over a two-year period). This saved the city over $600,000. Press releases were dispatched, and we awaited feedback from citizens, The Spokesman-Review and even The Journal of Business. Nothing happened. The news was never reported. We made contacts again with the press - nothing. I think many of our members now see this effort as a failed trial balloon. It would be hard to believe that any further future concessions would sway those who already have a bias against us and unionized labor in general. Our experience is that these concessions would not even be made public by members the news media (The Journal of Business included).
The Journal of Business, businesses in Spokane, unions, city workers, citizens - retired, employed, unemployed, our families - we are all in this together. You need us and we need you. It’s time to drop some of our biases and take a truthful look at what we can do together.
First off, a simple question. “Why are city employees costing the city so much money?” Raises have been modest. Well, the truth of it is something that you mentioned in your letter - health insurance. Twenty years ago, affordable health insurance was the norm for all workers. Even the smallest of businesses were able to insure their employees. You are right, city employees still enjoy this traditional benefit. But here’s something that you leave out of your analysis. It is the health insurance companies that are responsible for a greediness that has catapulted insurance costs higher than many mortgages. Is The Journal of Business, right now, willing to advocate for a national single-payer health care system, or some other reform, that would allow all to enjoy the benefits that city employees now enjoy? These are benefits that all workers used to enjoy until deregulated insurance companies took us to the cleaners. To be sure, their coffers are overflowing with cash. This cash makes its way into your publication. Most citizens and business owners know this. Maybe it’s time for you, not just as a public relations stunt but because you care about Spokane, to take a stand for small businesses, for government, for citizens and for our future against the true culprits of the budget - one of your patrons - the health insurance industry.
When you compare Spokane’s fire department with Tacoma’s (our most comparable) or any other city in Washington, the numbers are pretty stark. Spokane responds to more emergency calls with less firefighters for a fraction of the cost compared to other cities' fire departments. Citizens and businesses in Spokane get more bang for their buck. This is great news for all of us. However, there’s more to the picture. In Spokane, homeowners foot a bigger percentage of the city’s operating costs, when compared to cities where businesses offset property taxes with their contributions to a B and O tax. There is a B and O tax in every Washington city except Spokane. Will The Journal of Business advocate a city, or even a county, B and O tax? This would alleviate Spokane’s budget problems and help take some financial pressure off of our citizens and customers.
A new era has dawned in our nation, and in Spokane. We are beginning to see the folly of blindly following an ideology without question, and not looking with rational eyes at our circumstances. We need to logically consider, and perhaps implement, what has worked in other cities, states and countries. So far, your editorial board seems to want to stay on a course that has proven to be beneficial in the short run for a few, and disastrous in the long run for all. That’s understandable. It's a comfortable place for you. This is where The Journal of Business, like many, has strayed the past 20 years, intensifying in the last eight. But the times, they are a’changing. It won’t be easy to set aside a comfortable ideology. It may cost you (or us) some money, in the short run. Together we owe the future of Spokane nothing less, if there is to be a future for Spokane.
Here is one “Worker of City Hall” who has read what you had to say. I have taken it to heart. I hope you now have a better idea of why we need each other. And I hope you have considered what I have to say.
IAFF LOCAL 29