The Firemen Next Time
If public-sector unions get their way on collective bargaining, deadly fire-fighter strikes will almost certainly follow.


John Berlau

‘So the question is, do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens?” So wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman of the Tennessee fire whose flames have consumed the punditocracy over the past week.

Krugman and other pundits on the left have pointed to the fire that destroyed Gene Cranick’s home in Obion County, Tenn. — after the fire department from the nearby town of South Fulton refused to put it out because Cranick had not paid the subscription fee — as an example of the potential consequences of free-market policies.

In an attempt to equate the fire department’s actions with opposition to Obamacare, Krugman argued, “This is essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance.” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said the incident offered a glimpse “into the America envisioned by the Tea Party . . . just a preview of what would come in a kind of à la carte government.”

In his week-long coverage of the event, Olbermann also touted the condemnation of the fire department by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the largest fire-fighters union. IAFF president Harold Schaitberger proclaimed in a press release that “everyone deserves fire protection because providing public safety is among a municipality’s highest priorities.” The press release concluded that because of a “pay-to-play policy, fire fighters were ordered to stand and watch a family lose its home.”

But what Schaitberger and his allies didn’t say is that fire fighters in municipal fire departments have several times been ordered to stand by and watch families lose their homes, and sometimes lose their lives. And who gave those orders? None other than the IAFF and other unions enforcing the “pay-to-play policy” known as the strike.

If the liberal blog site Think Progress wishes to frame fire protection as an issue of “two competing visions of government” and include the response to the Cranick fire as “the conservative vision . . . on full display” (which it isn’t necessarily, as I will explain), then the liberal vision of an urbanized and unionized “professional” fire department has to be scored as resulting in more property damage, injuries, and deaths. And if the IAFF and its allies get their way with federal legislation to mandate collective bargaining for public-safety officers in every American community, the deadly fire-fighter strikes of the recent past will almost certainly be a part of our “progressive” future.

Consider what happened in Memphis 32 years ago. On July 1, 1978, 1,400 union fire fighters walked off the job after rejecting the city’s offer of a 6 percent pay increase, leaving only 150 non-union personnel to assist supervisors. “Over the weekend of July 2 and 3, fires broke out around the city in far greater than normal numbers,” recounted professors Armand Thieblot and Thomas Haggard in their comprehensive book Union Violence: The Record and the Response, published by the Industrial Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “On Saturday, the first day of the strike, 225 alarms of fire were reported, and on the following day, there were about 125.” Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler told a local newspaper that the group of fires “was one of the most unreal scenes I’ve ever seen. It was like a World War II newsreel.”


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