Philly firefighters and paramedics protest union local’s endorsement of President Trump

Members of IAFF Local 22 in Philadelphia protested their chapter’s unprecedented decision to buck their national chapter and endorse President Trump.

Lisa Forrest, Philadelphia's Fire Department Battalion Chief, joins other members of the firefighters and paramedics union in denouncing the local's endorsement of Donald Trump and calling for a retraction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lisa Forrest, Philadelphia's Fire Department Battalion Chief, joins other members of the firefighters and paramedics union in denouncing the local's endorsement of Donald Trump and calling for a retraction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s firefighter and paramedics’ union gathered Friday morning outside union headquarters to protest their chapter’s endorsement of President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

The International Association of Fire Fighters national chapter had previously endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden back in 2019, one of the first unions to do so.

IAFF Local 22, however, made the unprecedented move to break rank and endorse Trump based on responses to an email poll distributed internally among union members.

Local 22 President Michael Bresnan wrote in a statement that members were surveyed and “overwhelmingly chose President Trump.”

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“The Biden endorsement was done without a canvas of local unions and the consideration of the rank and file IAFF membership,” Bresnan wrote. “There is tremendous support for President Trump among first responders and we encourage other IAFF locals to confer with their members.”

Of the more than 4,700 members among its ranks, fewer than 600 people reportedly took part in the survey, and others report never receiving the email distributing the poll in the first place. Around 400 of those who responded chose President Trump as their candidate.

Many in the union feel disenfranchised by the chapter’s decision to break protocol and endorse a presidential candidate for the first time based on the responses of roughly 12% of their members.

Many members of IAFF Local 22, which represents Philadelphia firefighters and paramedics, were surprised to learn their union had endorsed Donald Trump. They gathered at union headquarters Friday morning to demand a retraction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Among those protesting outside of IAFF Local 22 in Northern Liberties were Club Valiants (the fraternal organization for Philadelphia’s African American firefighters) and the Spanish American Professional Firefighter Association (representing Philadelphia’s Latino firefighters).

Newly promoted fire department Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest, who also serves as president of Club Valiants, said the poll distributed by union brass had ulterior motives.

“A lot of people saw it, including myself, and felt like it was none of anybody’s business. A lot of members saw it and said, ‘I’m not telling the local who I’m voting for,’” she said. “So at no point in time did it indicate that it would lead to an endorsement.”

Poll emailed to Philadelphia firefighters (Screenshot)

A copy of the poll and subsequent emails from union officials obtained by WHYY News show there was no indication the poll would be used for an official endorsement by the chapter.

“I’m outraged,” said Deputy Chief Anthony Hudgins. “I’m an active member of Local 22, I vote in every election, and I volunteer my time. I’ve probably served in every committee they have [in the union]. Our PAC guidelines state that we do not endorse national candidates. So we’re breaking our own bylaws by doing so and it does not make sense,” he said. “The survey was misleading at best and a total farce at worst.”

Hudgins said if the union does not rescind its endorsement at its upcoming meeting on Tuesday, many in the union would consider dropping out of the union.

“Nothing’s off the table. We want this to be right,” Hudgins said.

Local 22 leadership did not return requests for comment.

Local 22 member William Tung says his union’s endorsement of Donald Trump stirred political passions that are usually kept tamped down, ‘like giving oxygen to the fire.’ (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Benjamin Windle, a fire service EMT in the union, says the decision was “unconscionable.”

“The way that this was so surreptitiously handled behind closed doors, it’s a gross mischaracterization of our union and our city,” Windle said.

He said that prior to the endorsement, he tried to avoid talking politics on the job and in the firehouse. But with Local 22’s endorsement, he now feels compelled to speak up.

“I’ve been doing my absolute best to stay off the radar and now that’s not going to happen. This is disgusting, absolutely reprehensible behavior,” Windle said. “It doesn’t represent me. Donald Trump doesn’t represent me. And the union, if they act like this, won’t represent me for much longer.”

Some speculate that the endorsement of President Trump was a scheme by union officials to curry favor with the President, who was scheduled to visit the union on Sunday before reports emerged that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

“If we’re going to endorse a candidate, we need to have an actual overwhelming show of support for that candidate rather than sneaking behind closed doors and just trying to fulfill goals you already had in mind.”

Deputy Chief Girt Allerton anticipates union members will turn out in droves to Tuesday’s union meeting to demand that the chapter rescinds its endorsement.

“Oftentimes, we spend more time together than we do with our families. What I want to see with the union is that we’re inclusive, that all our members have a say, and that we all move forward as a whole,” he said. “What I expect [on Tuesday] is the largest turnout this union has ever seen.”

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