Hundreds of IAFF leaders are in Washington, DC, at the 2022 Alfred K. Whitehead Legislative Conference. With the theme, “The IAFF is Back on the Hill,” conference attendees are determined to make up for lost time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his remarks, General President Edward Kelly discussed why he always emphasizes that the mission of the IAFF starts in front of a church, citing recent line-of-duty deaths in Baltimore, and Stockton, California, and cancer-related deaths in North Carolina and Texas.
“What all of these incidents have in common is there is some action that the IAFF can take to make the job safer or to better care for the families of our fallen,” said General President Kelly. “That action is always political action. That is why we are here this week to lobby for things like access to cancer screenings, PPE without carcinogens and our other top legislative priorities.”
Watch General President Kelly’s remarks and the opening ceremony here.
IAFF leaders will meet with their elected senators and representatives on issues important to their local jurisdictions and the IAFF’s top legislative priorities, including early retiree healthcare for public safety workers, and federal fire fighter presumptive disability in case of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and some infectious diseases.
A rally is planned for Tuesday, March 8 at the U.S. Capitol in support of the IAFF’s number-one priority: The Fire Fighters and EMS Employer-Employee Cooperation Act. If enacted into law, it would establish basic collective bargaining rights for all IAFF members, including the right to form and join a union, the right to bargain over working conditions, wages and benefits, and the right to resolve issues through an impasse mechanism.
The Conference’s namesake, General President Emeritus Al Whitehead, died just shy of his 92nd birthday on September 5, 2021. In his memory, Whitehead’s son, retired IAFF local 1014 member Kenny Whitehead, narrated a moving tribute video.
Kenny remembered that his father wanted to serve his country from an early age, forging his birth certificate at the age of 15 so that he could serve in the Merchant Marines during World War II. He worked several union jobs before finally landing his dream job as a Los Angeles County fire fighter in 1954. Whitehead immediately joined Local 1014 and would later serve on the executive board as 1st vice president (1965) and president (1970).
Whitehead was elected IAFF General Secretary-Treasurer in 1982 before being elected General President in 1988.
“Not long after he took office, my father was deeply affected by the loss of six Kansas City fire fighters in an explosion. He vowed that their deaths wouldn’t be for nothing,” said Kenny. “He restructured the IAFF’s Legislative Department to be more effective as its staff and members lobbied to pass laws to keep fire fighters safer on the job.”
U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh headlined the first day of speakers and relayed his respect for the work of IAFF members. Walsh spoke of the deaths of Boston Local 718 members Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy in a 2014 brownstone fire and how it forever impacted his thoughts on emergency service providers. As Boston mayor, Walsh worked with Local 718 to replace all fire fighter equipment and implement policies keeping fire fighters safer on the job.
As United States Secretary of Labor, Walsh spoke of the opportunity to work with President Joe Biden, who is also pro-union and pro-labor, and fully committed to making real progress on behalf of IAFF members.
“We need to pass legislation like the Build Back Better bill, which includes money to purchase PFAS-free bunker gear,” said Secretary Walsh. “Anything we can do to help fire fighters fight against cancer is a top priority for this administration. Your president and I know the dangers of the job and we are here to make sure you have what you need to stay safe.”
Washington, DC Local 36 Executive Vice President Joe Papariello was also on hand to offer support to attendees while they are in town to lobby on behalf of all IAFF members. “We encourage you to enjoy our city while you’re here, but we all need to keep our eyes on the mission. Whether you are here by yourself or with several brothers and sisters from your local, the goal is the same: to have our voices heard.”
With Congress in session, IAFF members will be lobbying on Capitol Hill March 8-9. In addition, the conference includes multiple educational opportunities for members to learn lobbying and political action strategies. A new afternoon session, well received by all attendees, focused on a series of panels with IAFF members who have had recent successes on local political issues.
Portions of the Legislative Conference will be posted to the IAFF’s YouTube page.