Will Congress Kill Volunteer Fire Departments?

Volunteer fire departments are about as American as apple pie. But under legislation moving quickly in Congress, this staple of American life could soon be a thing of the past.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D.-S.C.) wants to include the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act as part of the war supplemental coming before the House this week. The bill forces state and local governments to collectively bargain with police, firefighters and emergency workers. Its critics say it would compel volunteer firefighters to join unions, threatening the survival of America’s nearly 26,000 volunteer fire departments.

The act would affect some states more than others. In North Carolina and Virginia, for example, collective bargaining is currently prohibited. Eighteen other states have limitations on bargaining. The legislation would likely force those governments to abandon merit-based promotions for public safety workers and shift instead to a collectively bargained seniority schedule, which unions prefer.

By including the legislation in the much larger supplemental appropriations bill, which funds the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Clyburn would avoid a contentious fight with conservatives and appease unions with a legislative victory. And because the Senate has already passed the supplemental, Republicans would have no opportunity to amend it. In other words, the only way to stop the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act is to keep it out of the supplemental.

The House previously approved the measure in 2007 with the support of 98 Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) tried and failed to attach it to the Senate version of the war supplemental in May. At least six Republican senators have signaled their support for the bill. They include Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

None of the Senate Republican co-sponsors hail from states that limit collective bargaining. Johanns, normally a solid conservative with an American Conservative Union rating of 95%, told the Wall Street Journal: “For several years now, we’ve seen the benefit of a similar policy in Nebraska which prevents public employees from going on strike while helping to establish reasonable compensation ranges.”

Critics of the bill call it anything but reasonable. The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk documented the consequences to volunteer firefighters last time the bill was this close to passage in 2007. Sherk noted that nationwide 72% of firefighters are volunteers, serving mostly communities with fewer than 25,000 people.

Under the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, also known as PSEECA, the International Association for Fire Fighters stands to gain. The union, which represents career firefighters, strongly opposes volunteers and prohibits its members from belonging to volunteer departments, even when they’re not on duty.

"Firefighters unions vehemently oppose volunteer firefighters because they reduce the need for paid firefighters," Sherk said. "They levy stiff internal fines against unionized firefighters who volunteer off-duty. By requiring all states and localities to collectively bargain, PSEECA would make it easier for unions to crack down on volunteer firefighting."

Boosting membership at public-sector unions is a top priority for Big Labor. Last year they surpassed private-sector unions and represent an area of growth for the labor movement. Of course, the costs are steep as governments grapple with higher salaries and expensive benefits.

Like most labor unions, the International Association for Fire Fighters is also a major supporter of liberals, having given 82% of its political donations to Democrats over the past 20 years.

Conservatives aren’t alone in opposing the legislation. The National League of Cities and National Sheriffs’ Association criticized the bill when Reid attempted to attach it to another piece of legislation earlier this year. They worry about the encroachment of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which would intervene in states and localities without collective bargaining laws.

"We believe that employment decisions are best made at the state and local level," said Ron Loveridge, mayor of Riverside, Calif., and president of the National League of Cities.

In an alert to its members, the National Sheriffs’ Association attacked the legislation for imposing an unnecessary federal mandate: "To force sheriffs and other public safety officers to adhere to a ‘one-size fits all’ federally mandated labor-management guidelines is to impede the ability of public safety offices to function most effectively and allocate valuable resources to the maintenance of public safety."

The bill’s problems extend beyond the encroachment on states’ rights. The growing power and cost of public-sector unions is already straining government coffers. Sherk estimates that unionized state and local government employees make up to 12% more than their non-union counterparts and have more expensive benefit packages. Even without the legislation, the cost to states and localities is already adding up.