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Open letter to the public safety forces of South Carolina

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  • Open letter to the public safety forces of South Carolina

    Dear brothers and sisters in Police, Fire, and EMS:

    Legislation is working its way through the U.S. House of Representatives[1][2] that directly pertains to all of us. It’s called H.R. 980, The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007,[3][4] and it would establish minimum standards for state collective bargaining laws for public safety officers, including:[5]

    • The right of public safety officers to bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions
    • A dispute resolution mechanism, such as fact finding or mediation (not the so-called “grievance procedure” we have now)
    • Enforcement of contracts through state courts

    This would be real job security for you, and your family. Collective bargaining is something that the vast majority of the public safety forces in the country already enjoy. It’s the formal recognition that each of us deserves, because we put our lives on the line for our community. The International Labor Organization (an agency of the United Nations) and many scholars have suggested that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right.[6][7] Public employees do not have access to collective bargaining in South Carolina.[8][9][10] That's because South Carolina is an employment-at-will state, which means that an employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. That should not come as a surprise to most of you, because your employer has probably asked you to sign a memorandum of understanding to that effect, first when you were hired, and more recently after the Employee Handbook Law was passed, which made it even easier for you to be fired.[11][12] Public safety employees have no job security in the State of South Carolina, but H.R. 980, The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007 promises to change all that.

    When a similar bill was proposed in 2002, the Municipal Association of South Carolina sent a memo to every City Manager and clerk in the State, urging them to ask their local members of Congress to oppose the bill.[13] That should also come as no surprise. It goes against human nature to give up control. But how did we get here? Why are the public safety forces so powerless in South Carolina? A little research reveals that powerful business interests, led by the Chamber of Commerce, have lobbied extensively against unionization and collective bargaining rights in several southern states including South Carolina.[9][14][15][16] According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina and South Carolina are tied for last among the states for the percentage of workers that are union members at 3.3 percent.[17] That might be the reason that Presidential Candidate Rudy Giuliani seems to spend so much time with firefighters in South Carolina. Aside from the obvious political importance of South Carolina’s early primary, the leadership of the IAFF can’t stand him.[18] Only in a state like South Carolina can a politician like Congressman Joe Wilson score political points by passing out special awards to firefighters[19] without fear that an organized state firefighters union will confront him with the fact that he led the charge for the National Right to Work Act in 2003.[20] In South Carolina, politicians answer to business interests. That’s because labor is hopelessly disorganized. Here’s a perfect example. When H-3176 was passed in 2002, applying the State's right-to-work laws to public employees,[21] (as if our at-will status and prohibition against collective bargaining wasn't enough), where was the South Carolina Firefighters Association? They were conspicuously silent on the issue. After the tragedy in Charleston this past June, we saw the open hostility between the SCFA and IAFF on Dave Statter's public safety blog, Statter 911.[22] Whether you agree or disagree with the City of Charleston's decision to run their own memorial service, the sharp and perhaps ill-considered comments of IAFF President Harold Schaitberger didn't change the fact that whatever the virtues of the SCFA, they do not adequately represent the interests of career firefighters in South Carolina.

    It’s time that we took our careers, our lives, and our departments' futures into our own hands. I encourage all of you to contact your representatives in the U.S. House and Senate, and tell them you are a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, or EMT; that you want recognition for the sacrifice you make for your community, and that you want the freedom to speak your mind without fear of being retaliated against or fired. Tell them you’ve earned the right to sit down with your employers as an equal, in a spirit of mutual respect, with the best interest of your community at heart, because you’re the one on the front lines, risking your life to save the lives of strangers. More importantly, I want you to look around at your brother and sisters in the public safety forces, because they are your second family. United we stand, and divided we fall.

    Previous versions of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act narrowly missed a 60-vote super-majority in the U.S. Senate,[23][24] but that was under Republican control. Now both houses are under Democratic control. This Bill has an excellent chance of passing, and it's hard to imagine that even President George W. Bush would veto a firefighter bill in an election cycle.

    We know where we’ve been. Now the question becomes, where do we go from here? The future is whatever we make it.

    Best regards,


    1. ^ "House Panel Approves IAFF Bargaining Bill," International Association of Fire Fighters

    2. ^ "Collective Bargaining Rights for Public Safety Workers," The Gavel - Speaker Nancy Pelosi's blog, June 20, 2007.

    By an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 42-1, the House Education and Labor Committee today approved legislation to guarantee the rights of firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical service workers in all 50 states to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

    "The brave men and women who risk their lives each day and serve as our first line of defense against medical emergencies, criminals, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks deserve the right to bargain with their employers," said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the committee.

    "Our firefighters and police officers put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. This was tragically demonstrated Monday night by the nine firefighters killed in a furniture warehouse fire in Charleston, South Carolina," said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI). "Unfortunately, some states in this country deny our public safety employees the basic right to discuss workplace issues with their employers – a right many Americans take for granted. My bill would grant these brave men and women this right. We owe it to them."

    "The committee’s nearly unanimous passage of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007 marks a historic moment for the first responders of our country, who are the heroes of our nation," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. "Today we honor the brave men and women who put themselves first by providing them with the indisputable right to collectively bargain. I am happy to be a supporter of this important piece of legislation and look forward to its passage on the House floor."

    3. ^ "H.R. 980, The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007,"

    4. ^ "H.R. 980: To provide collective bargaining rights for public safety officers employed by States or their political subdivisions,"

    5. ^ "Collective bargaining - legislative fact sheet," International Association of Fire Fighters

    6. ^ Hoyt N. Wheeler, (2000) "Viewpoint: Collective Bargaining Is a Fundamental Human Right," Industrial Relations, Volume 39; Issue 3: pp. 535-539.

    7. ^ "UN Labor Panel Finds U.S. in Violation, Calls for Repeal of NC Bargaining Ban," United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, April 3, 2007.

    In a strongly-worded decision made public today, the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, issued an unprecedented call for the United States to "promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina," and called specifically for the repeal of North Carolina General Statute § 95-98, the state law that prohibits public employee collective bargaining.

    The complaint charged the U.S. with failure to uphold its obligations, as a member state of the ILO, to protect the internationally-recognized rights of public employees in North Carolina to freedom of association and collective bargaining. North Carolina General Statute § 95-98 prohibits collective bargaining and declares any agreement between a labor union and any city, town, county, or the state to be illegal and null and void. The union alleges in the complaint that, by failing to take actions to overturn this law, the U.S. government is violating international law and ILO rules. The ILO’s decision sustains these charges.

    8. ^ (2000) "Branch v. City of Myrtle Beach," South Carolina Supreme Court

    Unlike private employees, public employees in South Carolina do not have the right to collective bargaining. See McNair Resolution, H. 1636,1969 S.C. Sen. Jour. 826 (April 5, 1969); 1969 House Jour. 942 (April 30,1969); see also Dennis R. Nolan, Public Employee Unionism in the Southeast: The Legal Parameters, 29 S.C. L. Rev. 235, 287 (1978). As a result, even if the right-to-work statute applied to public employment, significant aspects of the statute would be totally irrelevant.

    9. ^ a b "The South Carolina Governance Project - Interest Groups in South Carolina," Center for Governmental Services, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina

    South Carolina has long been one of the least unionized states in the nation. In 2000 the state ranked 49th with 4 percent unionized, only slightly ahead of North Carolina. As a result, organized labor has relatively less clout in the state than in most other states. One of the main goals of powerful business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce has been to keep labor unions out of the state, and they have been quite successful in their efforts. A major tool in weakening efforts to unionize the labor force has been the "right-to-work" laws, passed more than 40 years ago. These laws outlaw the "closed shop," which would force all workers to join a union when a majority of workers vote to be represented by the union. The idea behind the closed shop is to prevent what is called "free riders," that is, workers who benefit from union contracts without having to pay to support the union efforts.

    Even public employee unions, which, unlike private sector unions, have been growing nationally, are limited in South Carolina. State government does not engage in collective bargaining with public employees and prohibits strikes. S.C. Code (Section 8-11-33) only allows dues for the State Troopers' Association and State Employees' Association to be withheld in paychecks if they do not engage in collective bargaining or encourage members to strike. The simultaneous strikes by public school teachers and university professors in Hawaii in the spring of 2001 that ultimately led to double digit pay increases simply could not take place in South Carolina.

    10. ^ (1985) "State employee bargaining: policy and organization," Monthly Labor Review

    Oklahoma and South Carolina replied that State employees were not among employees permitted to bargain, with South Carolina noting attorney general opinions and court rulings as the legal basis for not bargaining.

    11. ^ "The New SC Employee Handbook Law - FAQ," South Carolina Chamber of Commerce

    12. ^ "South Carolina State Victories," The National Federation of Independent Business

    South Carolina has long been an employment-at-will state; meaning employers could terminate an employee for any reason or no reason. It also means that an employee may leave for any reason or no reason. However, over-reaching courts were eroding this long-standing doctrine. In a unanimous decision (Conner v. City of Forest Acres), the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a jury would decide whether an employment contract exists in cases where mandatory language is found in the employee handbook, even where the handbook contains disclaimers. Well, not anymore! Governor Mark Sanford signed the employment-at-will law. that provides that states a handbook, personnel manual, policy, procedure, or other document issued by an employer after June 30, 2004, does not create an express or implied contract of employment if it is conspicuously disclaimed, meaning on the first page of the handbook.

    13. ^ Michelle Crouch, "NC Continues to Suppress Labor Unions," reprinted at from The Charlotte Observer, June 17, 2002.

    14. ^ Berkeley Miller and William Canak, (1991) "From "Porkchoppers" to "Lambchoppers": The Passage of Florida's Public Employee Relations Act," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 44, No. 2; pp. 349-366.

    15. ^ Dane M. Partridge, (1997) "Virginia's New Ban on Public Employee Bargaining: A Case Study of Unions, Business, and Political Competition," Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Volume 10, Number 2; pp. 127-139.

    16. ^ William Canak and Berkeley Miller, (1990) "Gumbo Politics: Unions, Business, and Louisiana Right-to-Work Legislation," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 43, No. 2; pp. 258-271.

    17. ^ Gary D. Robertson, "NC House Panel Approves Bill to Remove Collective Bargaining Ban," Associated Press article at, July 3, 2007.

    18. ^ Harold A. Schaitberger, "Letter to IAFF affiliates," March 9, 2007.

    19. ^ "Wilson Presents Congressional Fire Services Awards," December 21, 2007.

    20. ^ "Rep. Joe Wilson Champions Bill to End Forced Unionism," National Right to Work Foundation, October 27, 2007.

    21. ^ "H 3176 General Bill," South Carolina Legislature


    22. ^ "Schaitberger: City of Charleston Refused Help from IAFF & IAFC," Statter 911 at WUSA-TV News, June 25, 2007.

    23. ^ "Municipal Unions Lose Senate Battle," The New York Times, November 7, 2001.

    24. ^ "Firefighters Close to Gaining Senate Vote on Collective Bargaining Bill," U.S. Conference of Mayors, June 3, 2002.

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