Last week an eye-catching ad appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle's home page; clicking on it led to the Web site www.saveourfirehouses.com. You won't find out who wants you to save our firehouses from budget-induced closures (by deluging members of the Board of Supervisors with angry calls or letters) anywhere on the site, but if you dialed the number provided, a rep for the firefighters' union picked up.
Clearly, the firefighters' union is engaged in a lobbying pitch. And yet, like every other union in the city, it was not listed on the official registrar of licensed lobbyists.
In fact, not a single union reported engaging in any lobbying activity during 2008. This presents two scenarios: Unions have not engaged in any lobbying whatsoever, or they are simply not reporting it. Current and former members of the Ethics Commission SF Weekly spoke with are inclined to believe the latter. In fact, a recent letter sent to the commission by five of its former members specifically noted, "While most lobbying laws exclude [unions] reporting on negotiation of collective bargaining agreements, this exclusion does not extend to such activities as lobbying by the firefighters over closing fire stations, or city workers over cuts to the budget."
"Everyone knows that unions lobby," says Joe Lynn, a former Ethics Commissioner and the principal author of the aforementioned letter. "It's done among friends ... behind the scenes." Unions get around the city's lobbying disclosure rules, he continues, by arguing that everything they're advocating for deals with wages and hours. "Technically, [Ethics] should be nailing them," Lynn said of the unions. "But staff doesn't want to go against the unions because there's going to be pushback." He called the firefighters' Web site and online ads a "smoking gun" because union reps can't claim — as they could, say, after a closed-door meeting with a supervisor — that they're simply lobbying on behalf of workers' wages and hours.
When Tom O'Connor, the treasurer for the firefighters' union, was asked about the ad campaign, he initially denied it was lobbying, characterizing it as "advocating for the public good." An hour later, he called back and said he was mistaken — a union lawyer told him it was "grassroots lobbying." O'Connor promised the union would register Friday, within the allotted window of time — which it did. This, he said, was the plan all along.