With the announcement that the 20-year general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters will abruptly end his re-election bid, the organization’s reputation as a political force is in trouble. On Aug. 28, federal investigators served the IAFF a flurry of subpoenas, which the Wall Street Journal reports are part of a criminal probe focused on illicit payouts to Schaitberger from the firefighters’ pension fund. IAFF President Harold Schaitberger is, indeed, feeling the heat.
The investigation shines a light on the corrupt practices of politically connected union executives who put their interests above workers. Schaitberger is the top labor supporter of presidential candidate Joe Biden and was the earliest endorser of his primary campaign in April 2019. Yet, as a longtime IAFF local president, I can attest firsthand that Schaitberger’s political views are not widely shared by IAFF firefighters.
I was the first local president to publicly call for an investigation into the allegations against him by IAFF’s treasurer. Anyone who questioned Harold was demonized by his allies, but now the IAFF is being simultaneously subpoenaed by the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office, and Department of Labor — a vindication of our concerns that is long overdue.
The trail of breadcrumbs, however, is just beginning, and will likely lead to uncovering still more corruption and collusion at the expense of firefighters.
Unions are supposed to stand up for the underdogs, but we’ve allowed the bigwigs to start exploiting members in the interest of politics — or for their own gain. As a vice president of the AFL-CIO, Schaitberger has long been a major player in unions’ national political machine, with decades of experience directing the well-funded union lobby to push an agenda that goes far beyond firefighter health and safety. Furthermore, if, as Schaitberger hopes, Biden wins the election, the embattled union executive may be able to obtain a pardon from an old ally.
Because many rank-and-file firefighters passionately back President Trump, IAFF’s endorsement of Biden has met with a stern rebuke. While Schaitberger championed the endorsement on the union’s website, he failed to mention that there was no vote by the membership or even the local presidents. Instead, the decision was made by a committee of 16 bureaucrats from Schaitberger’s inner circle, many who haven’t fought a fire in years.
The Philadelphia Fire Fighters endorsement of President Trump demonstrates the division within the IAFF over political endorsements. Members want to have a voice in endorsements, so when they happen unilaterally, such events breed understandable feelings of betrayal. Indeed, many members and local leaders feel abandoned by the IAFF’s current president.
The pension system Schaitberger set up was unnecessary. Why? Union bureaucrats aren’t running into burning buildings — they are running up frequent flyer miles and dining out on the firefighters’ dime. It should come as no surprise, then, that their pension fund appears to have become a slush fund.
Americans are tired of reading scandalous headlines about leaders who abuse the public trust. And when politicians accept ringing endorsements from those accused of serious crimes, it raises questions about their integrity. IAFF used to fight for firefighters. Now, under Schaitberger’s leadership, the union has been tarnished by scandals and investigations.
Union leaders need to be ethical and avoid the inference of impropriety. Under Schaitberger’s tenure, the IAFF seems to have secretly used the talking points of a gear and textile manufacturer to quell the fears of firefighters regarding potential cancer-causing PFOAs in our gear. It turns out, hidden in plain sight but buried in tax records, the IAFF accepted $100,000 sponsorships from the very companies they were supposed to be watching.
The growing divide between union members and corrupt union leaders can be felt across the nation. As Politico recently reported, many union members now hold opposite political views to union executives, and many are seeking to detach, either by individual resignation or disaffiliation.
New York City Uniformed Firefighters union, the largest IAFF affiliate, now seeks to walk away from Schaitberger’s debacle. President Andy Ansbro recently stated, “We are spending upwards of 25 percent of our dues going to the international, and a lot of members just fail to see value in that.” And Philadelphia’s IAFF local just bucked their parent union to endorse President Trump.
If the IAFF can’t reform by locating, confining, and extinguishing the corruption on the inside, then like a building fire, it’s time for the locals to back out and let it collapse.