Philly’s Black firefighters sue union brass over Trump endorsement

Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Hudgins calls for the resignation of IAFF 22 union president Michael Bresnan. (Robby Brod / WHYY)

Deputy Fire Chief Anthony Hudgins calls for the resignation of IAFF 22 union president Michael Bresnan. (Robby Brod / WHYY)

Updated at 4:30 on Friday, November 13

A group of Black Philadelphia firefighters have sued their union, International Association of Firefighters Union Local 22, over what they call an illegal endorsement of President Trump for reelection.

Club Valiants, which represents Philly’s Black firefighters, accuses IAFF 22 brass of violating union bylaws by making the unprecedented decision to endorse a presidential candidate without a full, in-person headcount of union members. Valiants members claim this is necessary as part of the union’s PAC bylaws.

Following backlash and numerous protests of the endorsement, Local 22 brass opted to cancel regularly scheduled union meetings and spend about $14,000 conducting a mail-in vote count, angering many within union ranks who feel their union dues could’ve been spent more constructively.

The results of the mail-in vote upheld the endorsement. Over 1,400 members voted to stand by the endorsement, while under 800 members voted to rescind it. However, less than half of Local 22’s roughly 4,700 Philadelphia firefighters and EMTs responded to the canvas. Many members of the union did not participate, saying the mail-in vote also violated union bylaws.

IAFF’s international arm was one of the first unions to endorse former Vice President Joe Biden back in 2019. IAFF Local 22 broke rank and endorsed Trump based on an email poll distributed internally among union members, which only 12% of union members filled out. It was the first time the local chapter has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

Many within Local 22’s ranks believe the endorsement was made to curry favor with President Trump, who was scheduled to visit Local 22 HQ. But that visit was canceled after Trump tested positive for COVID-19.

Club Valiants member Jeremiah Laster was disappointed to see the money for the mail-in vote count being spent to fix a problem that he says shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

“They could’ve given that to the Widow’s Fund. But for them to just arbitrarily spend money without going through the proper process is just a slap in the face to everyone.”

Laster said it was reckless to endorse a Republican candidate for president, believing it will harm the union’s negotiations with Philadelphia’s leadership.

“It was self-serving, unwise, and a foolish thing to do. The contract process, the arbitration process, is all controlled by Democrats.”

Club Valiants president Lisa Forrest said the issue isn’t about Trump or Biden.

“It’s about the process and Local 22 not following the constitutional bylaws and the PAC bylaws that were put in place to prevent something like this,” she said. “So I know that it may be said that, ‘Oh, they’re just mad because it’s Trump and not Biden.’ No, it’s the process by which you endorse. I want it to be known that the process was illegal.”

According to union PAC bylaws, to endorse a local candidate, the vote must be made at least 50 days before election and then brought to the floor for a membership vote at least 45 days before election. Those were not followed in this case, as the endorsement was made based off of an email poll in late September. There are no bylaws for endorsing a national candidate, since the local has never broken from the international endorsement.

The lawsuit hinges on members saying Local 22’s brass broke PAC bylaws. Local 22 president Michael Bresnan responded by saying, “The Political Action By-Laws were suspended for revision back in 2015 by the Executive Board because the Political Action Team felt they were too restrictive … All endorsements and PAC donations have been made by the Elected executive board since 2015 and under three different Presidents.”

Local 22 also said in a statement that they “did do a full membership vote which yielded overwhelmingly to maintain the endorsement.”

This is the second time Club Valiants has sued Local 22 leadership. The first was a federal lawsuit in 2009 over “racially harassing and abusive” treatment toward Black union members, and the union’s efforts to end “any and all quota-based hiring practices.”

At that time, Bresnan was on the Local 22 executive board and also led the Concerned American Firefighters Association, whose founding chapter was referred to as the Caucasian American Fire Fighters Association until 2001. Bresnan argued that three white firefighters had been denied entrance to the fire academy in favor of “less-qualified” candidates of color. He took umbrage with a 1984 federal consent decree, which mandated more Black firefighters be hired and that an entrance exam which many believed discriminated against Black applicants be removed.

Bresnan at the time said there was “absolutely a racial division in the department, much of it over the consent decree.” He became president of Local 22 in 2019 after serving as vice president.

Club Valiants members said the Trump endorsement is part of an effort by Local 22 President Michael Bresnan to minimize Black voices within the union.

“It’s a flat out racist move by [Bresnan]. What else could it be?” said Club Valiants board member Eric Fleming.

Valiants members cite Local 22’s board, comprised entirely of white men, granting full membership votes to retired union members, who skew predominantly white and male, as one major way union brass minimizes Black firefighters’ voices.

Of the 4,700 firefighters and EMS personnel represented by the local, 2,600 are active members and 2,100 are retired members who still maintain full voting privileges on union matters.

“So the mail-in canvassing was to gain [retiree] support, because Bresnan knew [in-person] on the floor that it would not pass. So he had to bring in people to vote to not rescind it,” Forrest said. “That was another deceptive practice to push forth his own personal agenda.”

Valiants member and former Local 22 board member Anthony Hudgins, the only Black board member in Local 22’s history, said he would still be on the board if not for the large contingency of retiree votes.

“The retirees are overwhelmingly white males, because that’s who was being hired and subsequently retired,” Hudgins said. “As long as you have the retirees who are able to vote, a person of color or a woman doesn’t stand a chance of getting elected.”

Bresnan, in a statement, said he was “surprised by these allegations” when made aware of Valiants’ assertion that he cultivated a racist atmosphere at Local 22.

“I’d like to say I lead the pack as one who never discriminates and I am confident that my actions speak for themselves,” Bresnan added.

Bresnan said during his tenure as Local 22 president, he has “fought diligently for the African American members who had their positions terminated by African Americans in the Fire Administration.” He added that he has “personally given many African American members money from [his] own pocket who had small children and were struggling to pay their utility bills.”

Hudgins said the culture at Local 22 is hostile toward Black members, and was even while he was serving on the board.

“During one meeting I was told, ‘Why is this N-word down here?’ Another time, I was on the board, and a captain called down to the union hall and wanted to know who was the N-word who was trying to run his battalion,” Hudgins said. “What are we doing here? This is modern times. This is not the southern states during the late 1800s, but it feels that way.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal