Chicago firefighters and paramedics have a history of changing union presidents about as often as Imelda Marcos changes shoes.
On Tuesday, they broke the mold and stayed the course.
A chronically-ornery rank-and file re-elected Tom Ryan to a third, three-year term as president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2. The entire executive board was re-elected along with Ryan.
Ryan beat back a challenge from Engine 113 Captain Joel Burns, who is one of a handful of colorful Chicagoans featured in CNN’s eight-part reality mini-series, “Chicagoland.”
Burns was among a band of brothers who rushed to New York City to assist in the search and rescue efforts after the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center Towers. They have made a cathartic motorcycle ride back to Ground Zero every year since to mark the anniversary.
In a video posted on his campaign website, Burns accused Ryan of being too passive in his opposition to the cost-saving operational and pension concessions Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking.
Chicago firefighters have been without a contract since the old one expired on June 30, 2012.
Next year, state law requires the city to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and firepension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.
“I’m running for Local 2 president because I want to be your voice against anyone who wants to cut our staffing, our pay, our benefits and our pensions,” Burns says in the video.
“Like a lot of the membership, I’ve grown tired of the current union president’s wait-and-see approach to fighting that battle. We need to wake up before it’s too late. We need new leadership. Our union faces a serious threat that will affect the future of our members and their families. In my 25 years on the job, I don’t remember when the stakes were higher than they are now.”
Before the results were tallied, Ryan acknowledged that the long wait for a new contract is “always an issue” with his members. But, he said, “Look at the track record. Every contract is at least 18 months in arrears.”
He added, “I’ve run a serious campaign, as always, about where we need to go. But, I do it my way. I don’t make it a personal vendetta.”
Two years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel was seeking a laundry list of givebacks from Chicago firefighters that take aim at such treasured union perks as: holiday and duty availability pay; clothing allowance; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; the physical fitness incentive and the seven percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter paramedics.
The mayor’s plan did not include closing fire stations. But, it would alter the minimum manning requirement that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.
The current contract requires that every piece of fire apparatus be staffed by at least five employees. Emanuel’s plan calls for all “double houses” that include both engines and trucks to be staffed by nine firefighters instead of ten.
Emanuel also wants to covert the city’s 12 basic-life-support ambulances to advanced life support.
At the time, Ryan denounced the plan as “insulting” and “ridiculous” in a letter to the rank-and-file.
“We obviously refused to agree to any of these horrendous proposals and if what you are about to read makes you angry, it should. This looks to be a long and bitter battle,” Ryan wrote.
“We will, of course, continue to vigorously fight these insulting, ridiculous proposals. There likely will come a time when all Local 2 members will need to join in voicing our disgust over these outrageous attacks on the wages, benefits and conditions we have fought for and earned throughout the years. The city is testing our resolve. The battle has begun!”
Ryan has served as president of Local 2 since July 2007, when then-president John Chwarzynskiwas removed by an internal panel that found him guilty of violating the union’s constitution and bylaws.
Eleven of the union’s 13 executive board members had accused Chwarzynski of fraud, financial malfeasance and a host of other violations. Among other things, he was accused of filing a fraudulent expense report for an extravagant dinner for two at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
Chwarzynski denied the charges, accused his union brothers of trying to “cover up their own acts of misconduct and payroll fraud” and filed a lawsuit against Local 2′s executive board. The suit was subsequently dismissed.