The announcement by a union representing Philadelphia firefighters that it had endorsed President Donald Trump deeply divided its membership this week and sent shock waves through the union’s international structure, which endorsed Joe Biden last year.
Trump had been expected to visit Philadelphia on Sunday to thank the firefighters, a plan scuttled by his announcement early Friday that he and wife Melania had tested positive for COVID-19. But even before that, union members were sharply critical of the endorsement and the process that led to it.
"We stand asking — not even asking, demanding — that the endorsement of Donald Trump is removed immediately," Lisa Forrest, president of Club Valiants, a 400-member group of Black firefighters in the city, said during a rally Friday morning. She and others spoke outside the Philadelphia Firefighters and Paramedics Local 22 union hall in the city’s Callowhill section.
Mike Bresnan, president of Local 22, surprised many of his union’s members Tuesday with the endorsement, praising Trump and criticizing the IAFF leadership in Washington for an endorsement process he called “undemocratic.”
“The Biden endorsement was done without a canvas of local unions and the consideration of the rank and file IAFF membership,” Bresnan wrote in his endorsement letter.
Some of Local 22′s 4,700 members found that claim burning with irony, and complained about how Bresnan went about his own endorsement process. The union sent members a link to a “Presidential Election 2020 Survey” in a Sept. 3 email, asking them to log on to the Local 22 website to say if they supported Trump, Biden, “another candidate,” or didn’t plan to vote.
Chuck McQuilkin, the union’s vice president and political director, said about half of its members aren’t signed up to receive emails so they likely never saw it. The survey, which did not say it was for an endorsement, drew 577 votes — with Trump winning a little over 400 votes and Biden getting a little over 100. But those votes represented only about 12% of the union’s members.
McQuilkin said he had never seen Local 22 insert itself in a presidential election. He called it a bad idea that will create problems with Democratic politicians in the state going forward.
“We have members on both sides that, no matter what you do, you’re going to piss off a bunch of people,” he said. “It was avoidable. Just stay out of it.”
“The membership is divided now,” McQuilkin added. “The executive board is fractured.”
“It appears to our organization that the motivation behind Local 22′s action is to create a divide and push a political agenda that does not reflect the views of all the members it represents,” Club Valiants said in a statement.
Forrest said Local 22 should have called a meeting and put the issue before all the members. She said some members who received the email didn’t feel comfortable sharing their political leanings with the union and didn’t know the survey would lead to an endorsement.
“They didn’t poll the whole membership,” she said in an interview Thursday. “That’s not how you endorse a candidate.”
Bresnan did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump was thrilled by Local 22′s endorsement. “A great honor. Thank you,” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, a senior White House adviser, followed up with her own tweet: “Way to go, Local 22!”
The union had announced Trump’s visit in an email to members Thursday.
McQuilkin called Bresnan “a big Trump guy.” The union president’s Twitter feed backs that up. He tagged the president and his son Eric in a December tweet that said, “Many Local 22 Firefighters in Philadelphia, PA not happy with the IAFF endorsement of Biden. With a few policy changes Trump could be on the table come Nov. lets talk.”
Demetrio Olivieri, president of the 250-member Spanish American Professional Firefighter Association, also met with members Thursday who were upset about the endorsement. “This endorsement only further escalated the divisions and racial discord within the department,” the group said in a statement this week.
“The process was broken,” Olivieri said in an interview. “Everybody should be up in arms at the way this was handled.”
Harold Schaitberger, general president of the union’s international organization, said Local 22 has the right to endorse a presidential candidate, but he echoed complaints from McQuilken, Forrest, and Oliviere about union members who were left out of the process.
“We have a 40-year practice, policy, and understanding that the international handles federal elections and, certainly presidential elections, while locals handle local elections,” he said.
He said Biden has stood with the IAFF “every step of the way on every issue coming before the Congress since 1976.”
The union’s members chanted “Run Joe run” when Biden addressed them in Washington in March 2019, a month before he received their endorsement. Biden was not a declared candidate at the time, though early polling showed him to be the Democratic front-runner.
“I look around this room, I see the people who built this nation,” Biden said then.
Schaitberger said that Local 22 faces a “great divide,” and that he had heard from union officers and members “disturbed" by the endorsement.”
“I am dismayed about what is happening in Philadelphia,” Schaitberger said. “This was done wrong. I don’t believe it represents, overall, the view of the members.”