California Firefighters Union Withholds Support for Governor

Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, said he's not ready just yet to throw his support behind the governor who, along with the Legislature, cut the pay of his roughly 6,000 members.
(CAL FIRE Local 2881 image, Facebook)

Union cites pay cuts as reason to not back Newsom

Wes Venteicher, The Sacramento Bee


May 5–The president of California’s state firefighter union was notably absent from a press conference Tuesday in Sacramento during which two firefighter labor organizations announced they would support Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election.

Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire Local 2881, said he’s not ready just yet to throw his support behind the governor who, along with the Legislature, cut the pay of his roughly 6,000 members last summer and has shown little urgency in restoring it even as the state’s projected budget surplus grows.

“I speak for a membership that sees that their pay has not been restored,” Edwards said.

Edwards faces a challenge other state union leaders likely face now that the recall has qualified for the ballot. Many state employees don’t like the pay cuts they were forced to take, especially since the projected budget crisis that prompted the reductions never came to pass.

But Democratic governors traditionally have relied on unions for election support, both in financial contributions and “boots on the ground” voter outreach. Absent another Democratic candidate, the alternative to Newsom would be a Republican, a party that is traditionally unfriendly to organized labor.

California Professional Firefighters, an organization representing about 30,000 firefighters around the state, hosted the press conference Tuesday.

“We are a ‘no’ on the recall,” Brian Rice, the organization’s president, said.

Rice called the recall effort “divisive” and a waste of time and money. He praised Newsom for investing in fire prevention, seasonal support staff and technology to detect and fight fires throughout the state’s lengthening fire season.

The California organization is part of the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose Boston-based president, Edward Kelly, also attended the press event.

Cal Fire Local 2881 is an affiliate of the umbrella organizations, but Edwards said the local itself is reserving neutrality for the time being.

State firefighters took a 7.5% cut to their base pay through a personal leave program the union negotiated with the state when Newsom early in the coronavirus pandemic braced for a severe recession.

Firefighters in exchange for the pay cut receive two days off per month that they may bank indefinitely. As part of the program, the state suspended the monthly contributions the employees normally make to their retirement health care.

Newsom said in a January budget proposal that his administration anticipated restoring state workers’ pay as early as July, when the new fiscal year begins. Negotiations with state unions over the pay restorations are expected to begin in earnest following the administration’s planned revisions next week to what was proposed in January.

He has reiterated that timeline since, declining to speed up the process even as revenues have continued rolling in above projections. The latest figures show tax collections are $16.7 billion ahead of projections.

Edwards praised Newsom for the investments he has made to make California more fire-ready, but said he is still waiting to learn whether the Legislature and the governor will hire more permanent Cal Fire firefighters.

“He’s been probably the most progressive governor in terms of trying to prepare ahead of time for the fires, Edwards said, adding that his “members have concerns, and I don’t speak just for myself.”


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