Years of hard work has paid off for members of Chattanooga, TN Local 820. The Chattanooga City Council on September 28 voted unanimously to approve Mayor Tim Kelly’s budget that includes a 24% raise for the vast majority of all Chattanooga City fire fighters.

The new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) guaranteed pay plan provides Chattanooga fire fighter cadets with starting pay of $40,330, up from $32,594, with the same increase throughout the rest of the rank structure. This new starting pay places the Chattanooga Fire Department in a very competitive range with other departments in the area and statewide.

The effort to elect city leaders who support fire fighters and public safety began more than eight years ago when the local conducted a FIRE OPS 101 for city council members, broadcast and print media, as well as occupational health physicians.

Under the leadership of Local 820 President Jack Thompson, the union made great strides year by year, building allies within the city administration who advocated for budget allocations for second sets of turnout gear for all members, washing machines in most fire stations and increased visits for mental healthcare through the local’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), just to name a few.

The influence that Local 820 garnered through these relationships was instrumental in helping mayors appoint fire chiefs from the ranks of IAFF members. The last two fire chiefs and the current chief are all Local 820 members.

“This has helped our union and our fire administration share an open-door policy and work together on issues not only relating to our personnel but our department as a whole,” says Local 820 Vice President Keith Liles.

Even with these great relationships, the Chattanooga Fire Department was experiencing a tremendous exodus of members as it was one of the lower paid departments in the region.

While President Thompson was on deployment for the U.S. Navy, 14th District Vice President Danny Todd worked with Liles to request that the IAFF conduct a pay study for the Chattanooga Fire Department. When complete, the IAFF study prompted the city and fire administration to commission their own studies of pay data from other area departments. All three studies resulted in nearly identical numbers, which made it difficult to ignore. Despite delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city ultimately addressed these pay disparities, while the local held zoom meetings and engaged with the media to raise awareness of fire fighters’ low pay.

In 2021, the mayor and all nine city council members came up for reelection. This provided a unique opportunity to personally interview candidates for the local’s endorsement in the citywide election and provide copies of the pay study to each candidate in a field of 16 mayoral and nearly 20 city council candidates. Local 820 met with every candidate who sought its endorsement and invited them to attend FIRE OPS.

Following the general election and a contentious run-off election, the local successfully helped elect seven of the nine council members and a new mayor. All winning candidates, including Mayor Tim Kelly, noted that Local 820 was by far the most valuable endorsement in the city, not only in name but in work effort as well, with countless hours spent door knocking and providing whatever assistance was needed at campaign headquarters.

One of the most important questions asked of each council candidate during interviews was if they would be willing to vote down a budget that did not address the abysmal pay for Chattanooga fire fighters. In the end, a vote was not needed as Mayor Tim Kelly submitted a bold budget that included increased property value assessments while still slightly reducing the rate, generating an additional $30 million, all of which was directed to increasing employee pay, including the 24% increase for Local 820 members.

“We encourage all affiliates to embrace a positive relationship whenever possible and however long it takes to work together with department and city administrations for the best outcomes for all parties involved,” says Liles. “We know this is not always possible, but cooperation will almost always produce a positive outcome in the end. And if it is not possible, move forward with changing the political world you are in.”