If there is one month in this century that signified a turning point for California firefighters and California firefighter unions, it is probably October of 2003.

Early in the month, a strongly pro-firefighter era in the halls of power appeared to have ended with the recall election that ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the final votes were still being tallied, firefighters themselves were confronted with what, at the time, was considered a once-in-an-epoch fire siege that included the deadly and destructive Cedar Fire in San Diego County. 

In the nearly 15 years since that October, California has faced two gubernatorial transitions – Davis to Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger to Jerry Brown. In each case, these transitions created enormous challenges to our profession, and opportunities to move forward. 

This year, California once again embarks on the long process of choosing a new leader. Another transition and, like 2003, another turning point. The decisions made by the next governor could be the most consequential yet, touching everything from how firefighters do their jobs to whether they will be able to retire with security and dignity – possibly even whether they will be allowed to negotiate contracts at all. 

To fully appreciate the challenges of the future, it’s important to understand the battles of the past, and CPF’s role in shaping those decisions to the maximum benefit of California’s front line firefighters.

Securing Firefighter Priorities:
A Tale of Two Governors

Schwarzenegger’s election in the circus-like recall posed a direct threat to the livelihoods of firefighters. The new governor was a protégé of viciously anti-labor former Gov. Pete Wilson, and, out of the gate, he sought to cut labor’s legs out in one stroke: A 2005 special election campaign with initiatives attacking everything from public safety funding to labor’s political voice to ending secure pensions entirely. 

With CPF leading a remarkable alliance, firefighters became the public face of the opposition. The initiatives were swept aside, leaving Schwarzenegger publicly chastened. In the aftermath, he vowed to be “the best friend firefighters ever had.” By the time he left office, Schwarzenegger signed nearly 40 CPF-sponsored pro-firefighter measures into law, including the Firefighters Bill of Rights, a nation's first law protecting firefighters on the job that had been a CPF legislative focus for over two decades.

Schwarzenegger’s replacement, Jerry Brown, had a long history with firefighters and with CPF. In his first stint as governor from 1975 to 1983, Brown signed the landmark firefighter cancer presumption law and established the California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee. 

Faced with a massive, recession-driven budget deficit, the famously frugal Brown righted the state’s fiscal ship, secured new revenue and took advantage of the booming economy to build the state’s reserve fund. 

Having been visible and vocal supporters of Brown’s election in 2010, CPF won some important victories for firefighters during Brown’s time in office. The state ended redevelopment funds that were draining money from public safety, extended survivor benefits for families of firefighters that die of job-related illnesses, and overhauled Schwarzenegger’s punitive Workers’ Comp reform. Entering his final year in office, Brown had signed 43 CPF-sponsored pro-firefighter measures.

Standing Up for Locals

Many of the most tenacious battles come when acting on behalf of its local affiliates. To date, CPF has successfully won passage of nearly a dozen measures acting at the specific request of local affiliates, whether through direct outreach or convention resolutions.

  • Additional CPF appointee to EMS Commission from CAL FIRE (CAL FIRE Local 2881);
  • Mediation and transparency in bankruptcy cases (Stockton Local 456);
  • Vesting schedule and employer contribution for Sacramento Metro (Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522);
  • Notification of fire agency regarding possible parole of anyone who kills a firefighter (UFLAC Local 112);
  • Secure education benefits for children of firefighters who die of occupational illness (L.A. County Local 1014).

Beyond legislation, CPF has helped drive a new focus on helping local agencies get resources to address the ever-growing fire and disaster threats. Beginning with the post-Cedar Fire Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, CPF has pushed to grow the availability of pre-positioned OES equipment, staffed by local agencies. In 2017, CPF was widely credited with a focused campaign in support of allocating direct funding for local mutual aid from the state’s cap-and-trade fund. This funding will total $50 million over two years.

Standing Up to the Haters

Schwarzenegger’s unsuccessful anti-labor pushes were hardly the only efforts to undercut firefighters and their hard-won progress. At least three separate unsuccessful initiative efforts were launched to roll back, privatize or eliminate secure pensions for new and current workers. In 2012, CPF again led a coalition of organized labor to defeat Proposition 32 – a second attempt to silence labor’s voice. 

Legislatively, nearly four dozen separate bills were introduced over the two administrations that were directly hostile to firefighters. These included proposals to gut pension, Workers’ Comp, 4850 time, divert needed funds into special interest projects and even privatize fire protection entirely. Preventing bad laws is no less challenging than winning good ones. CPF’s legislative efforts ensured that none of these proposals made it to the governor’s desk, and most never even got past their first committee hearing. 

A Strong Voice Where It Counts

Success in shaping a pro-firefighter agenda doesn’t just happen in the halls of the Capitol. An array of state boards, commissions, task forces and working groups often are in the middle of enforcing and implementing policies established by the Legislature. 

Over the past decade and a half, CPF has placed firefighters on every meaningful state commission that touches the fire service. Through the Schwarzenegger and Brown years, a total of 20 different CPF members or staffers have served on a dozen different regulatory boards, commissions and statewide entities. On those commissions or committees most central to the lives of firefighters, CPF has multiple appointments, including the State Board of Fire Services and the California Emergency Medical Services Commission. 

Facing the Future

In 2018, California firefighters stand at another crossroads, as the demands on members multiply even as they face attacks on everything from engine staffing to retirement security. As a new administration approaches, these are some of the challenges firefighters and other public workers will confront:

  • The Janus Decision: By the time you read this, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely have ruled to allow non-union public workers to “ride free” by ending fair-share payments for union services. Bankrolled by billionaire anti-union ideologues, the Janus v. AFSCME case is about weakening union solidarity, making it easier to attack pensions, pay, job security and everything else unions work for. CPF identified the threat early on, and its “The Union is All of Us” campaign ( is designed to push back.
  • Reforming “pension reform”: Despite CPF’s firm public opposition, the Legislature and Gov. Brown enacted the “Public Employee Pension Reform Act” (PEPRA) in 2012, creating a second-tier retirement for new hires. At this writing, the measure is the subject of a court battle, but mitigating its impact and reversing its most onerous provisions remains a high priority.
  • The California Rule: Even more threatening than the effect of PEPRA is looming before the California Supreme Court, which could soon end a nearly seven-decade precedent requiring that pension cuts be offset by other benefits. Overturning “the California Rule” could lead to proposals to slash benefits to current workers. 
  • Meeting the disaster threat: Catastrophic fires, flooding and other natural disasters have become “the new normal” in California. And every time disaster strikes, most of the firefighters responding are from local agencies. Yet, even as the need grows, local resources continue to shrink. Recognizing the role all firefighters play in protecting our citizens from catastrophic fire is critical.

“Meeting the challenges ahead won’t be easy,” noted CPF President Lou Paulson. “If the successful battles of the past are any indication, our proud and committed union will continue to meet future challenges with strength and solidarity. When we stand as one, we win as one … because the union is all of us.”