By Joe Maniscalco
October 6, 2014
[Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of LaborPress’ exclusive interview with Uniformed Fire Officers Association President Jake Lemonda.]
New York, NY – Among the haunting and horrible memories of September 11, 2001 that Jake Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association [UFOA] carries around with him, is the inspiring image of ironworkers, carpenters and other trade unionists rushing through the choking ash of Ground Zero with their acetylene tanks slung over their backs and cutting tools in their fists – each one of them determined to rescue any survivors.
“The Fire Department and Police Department couldn’t do this alone, ”Lemonda says. “You had construction workers coming from across the city literally carrying the tools of their trade. If you wanted to see an example of what being an American is – and what being a union man is – that was it.”
How is it, then, that thirteen years after the towers came down, “union” has become a dirty word in this country – and working men and women find they can no longer count on retirement?
“When you look at what’s happened down on Wall Street with the banking crisis and the mortgage crisis, all of a sudden, civil servants in general have become evil,” Lemonda says.
Somehow, ever since the crash, much of the country has been sold a bill of goods that says labor is the problem – ignoring that the decline in unionism also goes hand in hand with the dying middle class.
"I think America is asking the wrong question here," Lemonda says. "Because they’re asking, ‘Why are these dedicated municipal employees getting their pension?’ And I think the fundamental question they should be asking is, ‘Why don’t I have a pension any longer?’”
In addition to trying to hash out a contract with the de Blasio administration – Lemonda’s union has been without one since 2011 – the UFOA also finds itself having to fight to preserve its defined pension benefits package – the system that bases retirement funds on a specific compensation formula.
And while he says that good government hinges on labor and elected officials working together, the head of the UFOA says current tier reforms that change the rules for younger workers represent a “huge inequity.”
“We all realize that there had to be some kind of tier reform, and we’re understanding of that,” Lemonda says. “However, I find it very unreasonable to ask a young person to go into any sort of hazardous environment, or put on a gun and shield, risk their lives, and not be compensated if something happens to them.”
Indeed, as 9/11 demonstrated, working for the city can be a very dangerous job. Despite the many known and unknown perils, workers continue to sign up for the task. But they do so with a clear understanding that they are also engaging in a special social contract.
“It’s part of the deal,” Lemonda says. “We come on this job willing to risk our lives and well-being. And part of that social contract is that we will have a retirement in place.”
Over the years, however, Contrary forces have conspired to successfully upset that social contract, and Lemonda, along with many others in the Labor Movement, are left trying to find a way to push back.
“What has changed in this country that I can no longer look ahead to my golden years and expect to retire comfortably?” Lemonda says. “So many corporations have eliminated their pensions for their people. And I think that is a fundamental question for labor, and a fundamental question for this country – because we all know that Social Security can’t provide that retirement net for everyone.”
Aside from the social contract, Lemonda insists that defined pension benefits are a good thing for the nation on purely economic grounds as well.
“Middle Class Americans are the people that spend money,” Lemonda says. “And they’re the people that keep the economy going. So, one of my priorities is to get this message out. Defined benefits pensions aren’t bad. Actually, they’re good for the country.”