Editor’s Note: from March 27-29, the Rick Smith Show provided exclusive coverage of the 2012 PA AFL-CIO conference, on the ground in Philadelphia. Raging Chicken Press strongly suggests you check out all of the Rick Smith Shows from that week…it was a pretty amazing set of interviews. We’ve chosen to include this interview with Darrin Kelley of the International Association of Fire Fighters because of the range of issues raised in the interview that speak directly to the struggles Pennsylvania progressives are facing right now–from attacks on working families to insidious legislation passed to protect the Natural Gas industry–and for Kelley’s unyielding fight-back spirit. Check it out! Thanks again to Chelsea Terwilliger for transcribing!
[Rick Smith] I’m here at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and look, the reason I love coming to these things is all of the great people you get to meet, the issues that you get to talk about; and you know, one of my favorite, firefighters. We were in Wisconsin, one of the great moments of that whole occupation was seeing Mahlon Mitchell and the firefighters—who’s now running for Lieutenant Governor there in Wisconsin—had him on the program the other night. Fantastic guy, nothing but the best of luck to him. But I’m sitting here with Darrin Kelley, he’s with the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Professional Firefighter’s Association, Local Number 1. Love the number one, Darrin, thanks for taking time for me.
[Darrin Kelley] It is an honor and a pleasure as always, my friend.
[Rick Smith] Number one, how’d you get number one?
[Darrin Kelley] It goes back to the very first international convention—Chicago and Pittsburgh wrote the bylaws—we really couldn’t come up with a reason for who was going to be number one so we let fate decide and from this point on it’s been a stab in the back towards Local Two, they always seem to joke with us about it every time we see them but it’s definitely in friendship and we are honored to have that.
[Rick Smith] I think if I were number two I would just skip right to three, I don’t want to be known as number two…but that’s a whole other thing….
[Darrin Kelley] Second is first loser they don’t take too highly to that, that’s for sure.
[Rick Smith] The thing is I look at Mahlon and I look at what happened there in Wisconsin and there’s this assault on public workers in this country as you know, but somehow the firefighters, to your credit because of the work you guys do, have been kind of singled out in the public attack.
[Darrin Kelley] Yes.
[Rick Smith] But you look at the budgets; I’m not seeing the attack subsiding there.
[Darrin Kelley] And it’s not, it’s actually only begun and I guess what’s so unique about Wisconsin is that it was a full-blown assault on everything we stand for, and we were lucky to have a leader like Mahlon to step up. He’s a good friend, I went to school with him at the International School, he’s a great guy, and these attacks are not going to stop. Actually, they are going to keep finding little ways to attack us, and if it’s piecemeal or it’s one big assault, it’s just begun.
[Rick Smith] I have a lot of friends—especially when I lived in Cleveland—who were firefighters, and the majority of them, ideologically, politically, were opposite of me. They were mostly Republicans, very conservative types. But, you look at these attacks and you really look at the Republican Party as a whole, I can’t imagine being a Union member saying “well, this is the party that represents me.” Somehow, and I encourage people, get involved in the Republican Party, bring them back to sanity.
[Darrin Kelley] That’s right, and for some reason a lot of times firefighters seem to identify themselves with the Republican Party, and it’s our job as leaders to educate them and say that this is not the case. Most, most baseline Republicans will listen to what you have to say, it’s the right-wing movement that for some reason have brought our members in and it’s complete farce and it’s our job as firefighters to educate these members. And, we have to. Right now, the International is really leading the charge of just rebranding us, rebranding what is important, and leave the social issues out of it and come back to what it comes down to is feeding your family and your work rights and your work rules. Then when you get to that finer point you realize that it is crazy where some of our people are leading.
[Rick Smith] You know I look at this and, after 9/11, you guys were really put up on a pedestal.
[Darrin Kelley] Yes.
[Rick Smith] You’re the heroes of the country…
[Darrin Kelley] Yes.
[Rick Smith] …and everyone wanted the photo op and to be honest, the photo op is still very important. But again, it’s this situation where “yeah we want the photo op but we don’t really want to pay for it.” I look around the country…Tennessee for instance, they’ve privatized there. And Conservative World to me is we privatize and profitize all this stuff, and folks who can’t afford it well, you’re basically screwed.
[Darrin Kelley] And it’s come down to the point where we’re made to do more with less, and we can accept that. A good union and good firefighter unions will understand what type of financial situation we have; all we want is a spot at the table, we’re not asking for anything more. We understand that society’s struggling, all we ask is to sit at the table. Work with us, we’ll help you find the cuts, don’t villainize us, we’re members of our community, you know, we’re the baseball coaches, the football coaches, cheerleading moms, we—most of us—work where we grew up. We take a lot of pride in that. We definitely fight back when we’re villainized when it’s definitely not the case. We’re here and we want to help our municipality.
[Rick Smith] The sad thing about what you just said is you want to be sitting at the table. They actually want you on the menu.
[Darrin Kelley] Oh without a doubt and isn’t that something. You know, there’s nothing worse than being stabbed in the back by the same person you take a picture with and it happens every day. In the world of public safety in general, everyone reads the same storybooks when we grow up about firefighters and police, but we’ve become such a target. I won’t say an easy target, because we’re starting to fight back. We’ve proven it in Ohio, we’ve proven it in Wisconsin that we’re not going to sit back and let you use us as your pin cushion. We’re done, we’re fed up, we pay into our pensions, and we believe in issues that most labor does but sometimes people look at us as just cash cows and we don’t need that. All we want is a decent wage, with decent work, and we’ll give back any way we can.
[Rick Smith] And respect, absolutely. I mean, we were in Ohio and to be honest we did some recording during the SB5 [Senate Bill 5] fight with that historical election. We were in the firefighter hall and the guy who was the president of that Local said “Look, sixty, seventy percent of my members voted for this guy who is now beating them over the head.”
[Darrin Kelley] That’s right and we also took a few buses up to Youngstown on the last weekend. We were asked by President Mark Sanders in Ohio, he said “Listen we need some help, will you load a couple buses up?” If I can tell you a quick story, I remember from when I was in Youngstown, and we were going door-to-door and I walked on a gentleman’s porch and he stood up and he said “Wait right there, son.” He said “Let me tell you something,” he said “I’m a Republican. I don’t like Unions, and I’m not the biggest fan of firefighters,” he said. “But you know what, one thing I hate is when people take my rights away.” He said “so you’ve got my vote.” But it’s those types of things when you get down to it, what’ s happening in Wisconsin and what happened in Ohio was a direct assault on our country, on your basic rights to live and be free and be happy. That’s why we feel we were successful. We got our message out there. And that’s the…we have to stop the I-80 train. It went into Indiana, we need to stop it in Illinois, stop it in Pennsylvania, and we’re here to fight.
[Rick Smith] Yeah I’m always amazed at the people who tell me that they’re for smaller, less intrusive government and they want government out of my life but yet they want government directly in between their relationship between me and my employer, me and my wife, you know whatever. It’s just kind of amazing to me.
[Darrin Kelley] Yeah, and hiding behind a copperhead flag doesn’t solve it, you know what I mean. And we see that and it’s funny how those things go, but it takes more than that. This is more than skin-deep, you have to use your brain to fight this one, and we’re ready.
[Rick Smith] See and this is why they don’t like you. I mean, I hate to put it that way, but you’re willing to stand up and say “No you’re not going to take my rights” and “No you’re not going to take food out of the mouths of children” and “No we’re not going to give more to the billionaires.”
[Darrin Kelley] You’re right.
[Rick Smith] That’s the reason. And you know, you talk to all the labor people at this convention; they all feel pretty much the same way. We need to heal the sick and take care of the poor and take care of working people. That mentality I guess has to be washed out of our lexicon.
[Darrin Kelley] We’re their worst enemy because most of us are inner-city people, but we’re educated. We love what we have, we’re not afraid to fight for what we have and they don’t like that. They say we should do what they tell us and we’ll never stand for that. We’re all great workers as you can see we have 1,000 people here, we take pride in our jobs. But we’re not going to be pushed around and be stepped on while they get their pie in the sky and yell at us at the same time that we can’t have ours.
[Rick Smith] While they’ve got their seventh and eighth vacation homes…
[Darrin Kelley] Absolutely.
[Rick Smith] You’re listening to the Rick Smith Show, we’re at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention here in Philadelphia. I’m sitting here with Darrin Kelley, he’s with the Professional Pennsylvania Firefighter’s Association, Local One—love that. Again, you look at the fight last year, for the last couple years over this cancer presumption that to me just seems, on a common sense level, people are rushing into a fire they’re rushing in to who knows what, and you’re not going to cover them if they get sick? Seems really short-sighted and again, if you’re asking these people to be heroes, you’re calling them heroes, and this is how you treat them?
[Darrin Kelley] Yeah this has been something that’s been going on for well over twenty five years. My predecessors fought this consistently, have been shot down and after lobbying from not just firefighters, we had the building trades involved with us, AFSCME involved with us, to finally get the people in the middle to say “Hey, you know what, this is time for these guys to get this….” One of the biggest statistics that we had that people couldn’t understand was that firefighters have a 65% higher chance of getting cancer than anybody else under the age of 40. Now that sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo but it.
[Rick Smith] It’s what you do.
[Darrin Kelly] It is; every time we go and just do a basic fire we got plastics, we have everything burning, and my men and women are breathing this; it took a very long fight and we’re honored to say that the two times it ran this past year there was one negative vote. We were very happy, we’re very proud of the lobbying we did on that, and thanks to the AFL-CIO and people like yourself for helping us get this message out and we’re honored to have that.
[Rick Smith] I believe you take care of the people that take care of you; if you’re going to call somebody a hero, you’re going to send them into war, send them into a burning building, or a falling building, you HAVE to help them. You have to be standing behind them and taking care of their family and their children and all that stuff. And what happened after 9/11 to me was just an absolute disgrace in this country. But you know, we were selling hats and calling them heroes and flags, taking pictures, but when they got sick we said “No, we’re not going to cover it?” What the hell is that?
[Darrin Kelley] That was another issue even on a federal level, those people had to fight for their compensation at the Trade Center for working on the pile that was the building trades and all the workers there that were helping find the survivors; and hopefully their families can have a decent burial for the people they picked up; it took a long time to get that bill passed, so it’s funny you’re right. You’ll get a pat on the back and a kick in the butt at the same time. It’s funny how that goes.
[Rick Smith] The question I’ve got for you, they’ve just passed this Marcellus Shale Impact…whatever it is…I don’t know if it’s going to help budgets or on the budget side of things, but one of the most concerning parts of this to me is this—I guess we’re keeping private what the chemicals are? So you as a firefighter, help me here, because I may have this wrong, if you go into a scene there may be a fire, may be a spill, your doctor can know what they are but he has to sign a release and can’t tell you what you’ve been exposed to? Is that right?
[Darrin Kelley] You know, it’s funny how these things go whenever it’s called the HIPA Law and different things about confidentiality of your health status, but the bad thing is that right now, nobody knows how to handle anything on a public safety level no matter if it’s your first responders or what they’re responding; how are we going to put these fires out, how we’re going to contain them contain them if they happen.
[Rick Smith] what happened at MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheets].
[Darrin Kelley] That’s what’s funny; this has gotten so crazy so fast in this state that none of us know where it’s going to go. Now, in the city of Pittsburgh they’re not drilling currently; but twenty miles from us they are, and a lot of our smaller Locals, our brothers, have got to deal with this and they really don’t know where they’re going to go right now.
[Rick Smith] So what happens if they come to a scene where you have this—now, you have to make the decision—no, you’re going to rush right in and suffer the consequences later. But to me that seems really, from a public policy standpoint, just completely ridiculous.
[Darrin Kelley] It is, and hopefully right now with the legislature…hopefully we can get something together and provide just some safeguards. We don’t want it stopped, all we want to do is have some safeguards to say okay, there are people who are going to be here to help out if something happens, let’s get them the facts, let’s find out what they’ve got to do without destroying property or destroying themselves and we need to be educated. Right now it’s not happening on a public safety level. It’s not happening.
[Rick Smith] This whole thing where they have proprietary information and we can’t tell you that you’ve been contaminated with benzene or whoever knows what, just to be, and again you go back to the cancer presumption thing: now you don’t know what you’ve been exposed to.
[Darrin Kelley] That’s right. And you’re absolutely right; you know how hard it is to prove to a panel of worker’s comp physicians that I got this at a certain incident? It’s just not that easy when you’re a firefighter.
[Rick Smith] And it’s just absolutely ridiculous. Thank you for the work you do, thank you for your members and all firefighters for all you guys do to work for our community.
[Darrin Kelley] It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here, as always. Thank you, my friend.
[Rick Smith] Thanks so much. Darrin Kelley, from the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighter’s Association, Local One. You’ve listened to a segment of the Rick Smith Show’s coverage of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We’re out of studio and on location bringing you news and covering the issues important to working people across the state and across the nation.
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he’s not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he’s teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.