Waving placards and pushing baby strollers, hundreds of firefighters and their families staged a Labor Day rally at Anaheim Stadium on Monday to protest stymied negotiations that have left them without a contract for more than a year.
The rally at the gates of the stadium was timed to greet crowds as they streamed out of the parking lot to wrap up Labor Day weekend watching the Angels play the Colorado Rockies.
"We wanted to get the word out to as many Orange County residents as possible," said Richard Chavez, president of the Anaheim Firefighters Assn., which staged the event with the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn. (OCPFA), which represents Orange County Fire Authority firefighters.
Designed to draw public support, the chanting and marching instead left some people sour and others with the mistaken impression that the workers were on strike, when they were merely protesting.
"I think it's too bad that you can't come to an Angels game and not be subjected to this," complained one Garden Grove woman who declined to give her name.
Added Michael McWilliams, 35, of Irvine: "I think my right to come to a ballgame and relax on Labor Day supersedes their right to strike. If they want to strike, go strike somewhere else."
But organizers, who handed out hundreds of pamphlets and stickers seeking support for firefighters, said they hoped the event nevertheless raised public consciousness.
"What we're doing isn't convenient," Chavez said. "We understand that. But going 400 days without a contract isn't either."
The Anaheim association represents more than 200 full-time firefighters. The county association represents 720 fire authority firefighters in 19 Orange County cities, said Joe Kerr, that association's president.
Anaheim firefighters have worked without a contract since July, 1996. The county fire authority hasn't signed a contract with its firefighters since it was formed after the county bankruptcy, and firefighters there complain that they make 30% less than others at comparable agencies.
"It comes down to one thing: They prioritize capital assets before human assets, and you'll never be able to take care of your employees that way," Kerr said. "They need to make their firefighters priority No. 1. We're looking for parity with our peers and fair compensation--a fair contract."
Kerr said that when a few departments receive anticipated cost-of-living increases soon, the Orange County Fire Authority firefighters will become the lowest paid in the county.
The rally, co-sponsored by the Orange County Central Labor Council, was the largest labor gathering of firefighters in the county's history and drew about 500 supporters. Firefighters from agencies not involved in contract disputes attended to show support, as did members of postal worker, hotel and restaurant and electrical unions, Chavez said.
At the very least, organizers and participants hoped the large showing would put a little labor awareness back in Labor Day.
"We've never done a Labor Day event like this," said Bill Fogarty, secretary-treasurer of the Central Labor Council. "It's always a picnic or an event like that. But today we thought it was really appropriate to have a protest to talk about labor.
"Everyone thinks it's just another day off from work, but Labor Day really is about wages and benefits."
Added Joe DeFort, an Orange County fire captain who was celebrating his seventh wedding anniversary with his wife at the rally: "People don't realize what Labor Day represents. There's a lot of white collar in Orange County and we're blue collar. They need to remember that we're here."
Seven-month-old Madison Cass sat upright in a navy-blue baby stroller decorated with a Day-Glo sign that read, "My Daddy Risks His Life For Yours."
"We just want to get the word out to the people," said his father, Jim Cass, who works out of the Orange County Fire Authority's Station 22 in Laguna Hills.
"I think they're unfairly compensated," said Carolyn Thompson of Mission Viejo, whose husband is an OCFA firefighter. Her three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, all toted signs that read, "Kids Support Our Professional Firefighters," and said they wanted their dad to get a raise.
Negotiations for both organizations have been complex and disappointing, leaders said.
Chavez, of the Anaheim association, said the city's "last, best and final offer" was for a 2% salary increase over 2 1/2 years, far below the 5% over three years that Chavez said he considered modest.
"Firefighters would never endanger the public by doing a job action, but we want the City Council to know that the firefighters are not happy," he said.
"We would like to see some leadership on that City Council--somebody who can deal with us fairly."
Anaheim city officials could not be reached for comment.
The Orange County Fire Authority's board of directors in July imposed a benefits package for firefighters that included no pay boost but increased the amount of money the authority contributes to firefighters' retirement.
While the authority is looking forward to a balanced budget for the first time since its inception, its spokesman, Capt. Scott Brown, said the board of directors felt it could not commit to a major pay rise while the economic future remains so uncertain.
"Our board of directors has placed a strong emphasis on valuing its employees and their current market position," he said, but "there have been some very significant challenges economically.
"Although the economy's improving, the board was conservative and concerned that we're not out of the woods yet," Brown said.
The board felt that the increased contribution to firefighters' retirement "balanced the needs of continuing to maintain our fiscal house, while giving our firefighters some pay raise. We realize that we're not where we want to be, but there simply wasn't the money there."