With Our Readers
One Man’s Meat
To the Editor:
The other day, a friend of mine wanted his house plainted. Like most of us, he wanted the best job he could get, at the lowest possible price.
He secured estimates from a firm of painters who, incidentally, employ union men. The price seemed too high. Discussing the problem with a friend of his, the latter said: “Why do you have to go to those fellows (the union firm)? Don’t you know you can get this work done for much less by employing outsiders? I’ve got a pal who’ll do that job for you at a real saving.”
The long and short of it was that my acquaintance got his house painted—by a fireman. He got it cheap, because the fireman worked when he could and as he pleased. The job was well done, too, and everybody seemed happy over the deal. Everybody, that is, except the contracting painter, who lost the job. He lost a $500 order and several days’ work for some of his men.
What gripes the union painter is the fact that the fellow who took the business away from him is also a union man—but not a union painter. He’s a sideline painter, but a full-time fireman, as the records have it. Just what is meant by “full-time” isn’t clear, when a union fire fighter divides his “full time” to hold down other jobs.
This is another slant on the problem of firemen’s holding down off-duty jobs, about which you folks at FIRE ENGINEERING have sounded off. If I remember, at that time, you pointed out that while there seems to be no general rule throughout the fire service against paid firemen holding dual jobs, the practice has its drawbacks and its risks. To this, I agree. On one hand is the advantage of more income. But do the disadvantages of the system outweigh that advantage?
Let’s see to begin with, omitting any reference to departmental rules and regulations about a fireman’s holding down more than one job, what about the public’s reaction?
As I see it, the entire matter must be judged from three viewpoints: (a) the public; (b) the fire fighter (and department); and (c) the union or other labor organization he represents.
It is generally conceded—and I believe has been proved in the courts—that the public has a right to the full, complete and unqualified allegiance and service of the fireman it employs. It hires him to protect its citizens and their property against death and destruction by fire. It expects that he will work at his calling and believes, up to now, that the fireman on or off duty is ready to fulfill his calling. Bear in mind, that thus far, the public, speaking generically, has not come to view the fire fighter, whether unionized, or not, as a clock-punching employee. That is no fault of labor, or of the public, as I see it. It is the outcome of the tradition of the fireman.
With the coming of the 8-hour day and the 5-day week (or shorter) that tradition will change. When it does, it is conceivable that the firefighter will be viewed in the light of the factory worker—the piece worker—the punchthe-clock hand. And he will be measured by the same yardsticks of performance, ability, and integrity as are other industrial organized workers. If he works the night shift, he’ll work it— all eight hours, whether or not he is doing it at a fire or in the station, or on the street inspecting, or pasting up fire prevention posters. More than likely, the fire station beds will go out; perhaps the “kitchen too.
When and if that time comes, the fire fighter may no longer enjoy the same heroic respect and adoration that he does at present.
From the viewpoint of the fireman himself, the arrangement will be satisfactory. No doubt he’ll be paid for overtime, and perhaps the idea of actually working those full duty tricks won’t be so bad. But for those who have that outside job, and outside income, their eventual requests for pay increases and better working conditions are going to get the third degree. “Why should you be given an increase?” they’ll be told. “You’ve never had it so good. You’ve got two jobs. There’s no limit to your outside earning capacity. Just put up a front at the fire house, and draw down your salary.”
To the union he represents, it won’t matter until and unless those organized workers in other unions finally protest, and command “lay off!”—Go compete with somebody else. You’re taking our bread and butter.” So, ultimately, the dual-job fireman is going to be forced to stick to his last: either be a fireman, or get out. And, perhaps worst of all, he will have—without meaning to, set up his own barrier that will cut him off from further increases, even if he needs and deserves them. As some cynic said about the dual-job proposition: “You firemen may be making hay right now—but you’re also developing hay fever—and you’re going to have to sneeze for it later on.”
The fire department? Well, what would you think about it if you were chief? You know that men holding two jobs are satisfied to go along; you know their doing so may stall off further immediate requests for additional money, and if the request conies, you know you’ve got an answer.
But what about the fellows who don’t have the two jobs? How do they feel toward their more lucky fellow firemen, and toward the department heads who “let them down?” No man likes to admit that he lacks special training or other qualities to get an outside job, and he’ll be inclined to blame the other fellow, not himself, when he fails to connect.
After all, there are just so many outside jobs waiting to be picked up. They may vanish with the first economic illwind. And then will come the trouble, when the outside job holders are cut off from their No. 2 or No. 3 incomes and are forced to revert to the level of their less lucky mates. Then what? Will there be a united front, asking for increases and better conditions? In fact, can the system whereby a few lucky ones drag down maybe double, or treble, their fire department pay promote good will and better morale among fire fighters? Many doubt it.
Don’t know how the unions are taking it, but I’ll bet they don’t like it. And I’ll also bet they’re not going to like it any better as time goes on.
G. T. L.
Ex Chief and Commissioner