Editorial: Detroit’s firefighters were abandoned by their union leadership

Photo by Steve Neavling.
Photo by Steve Neavling.

While Detroit firefighters were forced to rely on dangerous, defective equipment and rigs, their union was quiet.

While firefighters were threatened and disciplined for talking to the media, their union was quiet.

And while firehouses were riddled with mold, asbestos and other health hazards, their union was quiet.

This month, Detroit firefighters have an opportunity to elect new leadership of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association. And the slate couldn’t be more capable, driven or principled.

new union2Running to oust the current leadership are Mike Nevin for president, William Harp for vice president, Erik Carrington for secretary and Verdine Day for treasurer. Behind the scenes, these firefighters did more for their brothers and sisters than the current union, which failed to protect their membership from the fallout of a dysfunctional, retaliatory fire administration.

Some of them even risked their jobs. Harp, for example, was disciplined for talking to the media and filing legitimate complaints about serious violations with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On the last day of Fire Commissioner Edsel Jenkins’ career with the department, his administration tried to fire Harp before the new fire commissioner, Eric Jones, intervened on the firefighter’s behalf.

In a letter to firefighters earlier this year, Robert Shinske, the union’s treasurer, encouraged his colleagues not to speak to the media. And when his colleagues did, he failed to protect them.

“We know that some of our members want to see us in the media, but our current strategy is to only use the media as a last resort,” he wrote as firefighters’ lives were jeopardized by malfunctioning equipment that violated state and federal safety laws.  “Right now the mayor’s office is open and he is listening. One sure way to shut that door is to put a muzzle on his ears to our issues is through media coverage.”

Trouble was, Mayor Mike Duggan’s office was preoccupied with other city services and allowed the dysfunctional fire administration to operate without accountability. The current union leadership even donated $900 to Duggan’s campaign.

Firefighters complained to the mayor’s office about poor training and equipment, but Duggan’s administration didn’t respond because the union leadership refused to take up the issues.

So naturally, firefighters came to the media, eventually placing enough pressure on the mayor to oust Jenkins, the head of the department, just weeks before Devil’s Night.

The Fire Department is now on the right track with the hiring of Jones to replace Jenkins. But firefighters deserve courageous, principled union leadership that can work with the new commissioner and ensure that firefighters have working equipment, safe firehouses and good wages.

Nevin, who is running for union president, has already forged a good relationship with the new commissioner. Nevin understands that a healthy union requires a functional relationship with the administration and a fearless leader to ensure that firefighters get what they deserve.

For these reasons, Motor City Muckraker endorses Mike Nevin for president, William Harp for vice president, Erik Carrington for secretary and Verdine Day for treasurer.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.