In full disclosure, I am a Racine Firefighter. I personally know all six of the Racine's Local 321 Executive Board members, and I can attest they're all good men looking out for the best interest of Racine's Fire Union. I may not agree to the manner of which they have steered union members over Madison's budget battle, but I also know they do not take the impact of 9-11's tragedy on the fire service lightly.
News abounds everywhere over the decision made by the Racine Firefighters' Union Executive Board to withdraw their support from Oak Creek Firefighter Lt. Matt Gorniak in helping with the Racine Parade.
A few weeks ago, Gorniak called local 321's Union President Craig Ford to get Racine Firefighters to participate in the Racine 4th of July Parade. Unlike past parades, this one was unique since it was the 10 year commemoration of of 9-11's fallen heroes. In 2002, Gorniak and a few other firefighters from Oak Creek built a float to recreate the famous ground zero image of three firefighters raising the American Flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. Since then, Gorniak has used this float to honor the fallen in three city parades with tremendous emotional impact.
When Gorniak had initially reached out to the Racine Union, Ford expressed enthusiasm thanking him several times for the PR opportunity. Gorniak said that Ford was so excited and thankful about the invitation that he would have hugged him if they had talked in person. The next day, Ford called Gorniak with a novel idea of using union resources to fly in a New York Firefighter to march side-by-side with Racine's best. It was a nice touch, something Ford said was bound to get media attention. Ford even suggested taking the story to the Racine Journal Times. Of course, this all changed soon after Ford learned that Gorniak wasn't a full member of the IAFF. Apparently, no excitement is too great to overcome working with a fair-share firefighter.
Someone on the IAFF's State Board - presumably Oak Creek's Fire Union President Steve Wilding - informed Racine's Union of Gorniak's fair-share status. Being a fair-share firefighter means that someone like Gorniak would only pay for the costs incurred to the union to negotiate his contract. Gorniak went fair-share because he no longer wanted his dues to fund the agenda of the Democrat Party.
Ford reminded Gorniak that all the New York Firefighters who died in 9-11's tragedy were under a union contract. "It didn't matter," said Gorniak. He was willing to hand over the float's keys so that Ford could drive it himself. Gorniak said his gesture was meant to resolve the problem, but ultimately, that didn't happen. Five of the six Racine Fire Union Executive Board members voted to rescind union support for the parade.
When the media asked Ford why he wouldn't support the float, he gave two primary reasons. First, he said that they do a lot of charity work, and they just cannot use union time and resources to support every initiative that surfaces.
Yet Gorniak didn't call Ford to utilize union resources. He asked Ford to alert Racine Firefighters so they had a choice to march behind the 9-11 reenactment float. Ford's argument about not using the union's financial resources is a red herring.
Ford's second argument was that he could not support the float because the man promoting it was a fair-share firefighter. The firefighters that died a ground zero were all union firefighters, says Ford, and they all operated under a union contract. But Gorniak is still a union member who pays a "fair share" of his union dues; so why blackball him because he doesn't want a portion of his dues to fund Democrats?
And why does Ford believe that commemorating 9-11 is not worth union resources if one person involved in the parade is fair-share? Certainly there are many non-union workers in that parade, so why alienate Gorniak? Even more telling, Gorniak had offered to step aside relinquishing control of the float to Ford. So if Gorniak's fair-share status was the reason Racine's Union Executive Board voted it down, then eliminating that variable should have solved the problem - unless of course, they were just trying to punish Gorniak for his decision to go fair-share in the first place.
There is another part missing from the argument. Ford did not explain why the union membership means that no fire union anywhere should offer assistance to non-union firefighters for events that promote the fire service. To be consistent, this would mean refusing to help most of the nation's firefighters who are paid-on-call and not unionized. It's a dangerous slope to be on. It means that union membership - a financial investment in one's representation - is such a powerful life experience that even death cannot escape it.
But the public doesn't see it that way. They see those men and women who died in the line of duty as heroic firefighters, not as due-paying members of a union. What we really commemorate when we march for the firefighters that died on 9-11 is their courage and selfless sacrifice. Membership in a union is a money transaction and a fair system of representation, but it's not heroic. And it's not what we ought to be commemorating on 9-11.
Much like soldiers who give their lives in battle, firefighters at 9-11 made the ultimate sacrifice. Firefighters, unionized or not, go into burning buildings when others run out. But love has no boundaries, and their sacrifice keeps us all safe. The men who gave their lives on September 11th deserve more respect than a vote to snub a fair-share firefighter.