By Carol McCracken
The afternoon sun got a lot brighter when Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters spoke from the top step of the city hall in Portland to a crowd of about 400 people. “Don’t cut safety, bring our firefighters back – now,” he repeated to the crowd of around 400 who quickly took up the chant – repeating it over and over.
The 4:00 p.m. rally was billed as an opportunity to support the nine fighters who recently were laid off by the city because of budget cuts. It was an opportunity to accuse Joe Gray, city manager, of ‘bad faith bargaining”. But Schaitberger, whose office is in Washington, D.C. turned this rally into an opportunity to announce welcome news to many firefighters and their families in attendance.
Schaitberger announced to the crowd that the Obama Administration has just announced that it will immediately begin funding the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response known as the Safer grant – with 630 million dollars – for the entire country. Enough funds could be distributed to the city of Portland to hire firefighters back who’ve heen laid off over the past year. It would also be retroactive to January of last year. There is more good news. It is that it will not cost the city a penny. Schaitberger said that currently negotiations are underway to remove any strings or caps or maintenance that might be attached to this stimulus package. “It’s free money for the next next two years,” he said. Hopefully by then, the economy will have recovered.
This new stimilus package from the federal government could mean that 23 firefighting jobs could be salvaged in Portland. Schaitberger said that city officials could start applying for the funds within the next 30 days. He said it was his impression that the city of Portland had no knowledge of this potential stimulas package, although it has been in the works for sometime now. He encouraged supporters to contact council members to support this opportunity from the federal government to restore firefighters’ jobs.
Speaker after speaker addressed the aroused and attentive crowd most of whom were clad in yellow t-shirts opposing the budget cuts that had forced the layoffs of nine firefighters recently. The speakers repeatededly accused the city of ‘bad faith bargaining’ and more.
Prior to the rally, Lt. Pinder of the Munjoy Hill stationhouse said: “We are a necessary evil. People don’t know everything we do.” About 40 motorcylists, mostly from Providence, RI, assembled at the Hill stationhouse before making a dramatic entrance at city hill to kick-off the rally.
According to one union organizer, the bad faith bargaining of Joe Gray, city manager, “undermines collective bargaining which is a basic constitutional right.” That’s what’s so scary,” he said. “Negotiating a contract and then legislating it away is not good. Many firefighters feel forgotten because unions have been so vilified in recent years.”