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Kevin Cullen

Way of life under fire

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / January 18, 2011

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Bob McCarthy’s father and grandfather were firefighters, and it was his father who suggested he might want to carry on the family tradition.

“I went to BC, and they threw me out. Not because of grades. Because I couldn’t afford it,’’ he said. “I went into the Navy, and my father told me I should join the fire. He said, ‘You’ll never get rich, but you’ll get a raise every year. You’ll never get laid off. And you’ll get a decent pension.’

“My dad was a great guy, but he was 0-for-3 on that stuff,’’ McCarthy said. “Everything’s changed.’’

Bob McCarthy was a Watertown firefighter for 34 years. He has been the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, the state fire union, for the last 24 years, but he’s stepping down on Friday because, at 65, he has to.

He’s leaving in the middle of a war.

“It’s a war on the middle class,’’ he said, sipping coffee in the IHOP in Brighton. “We helped build that middle class. But it’s shrinking. The gap between rich and poor is growing. And that middle class is shrinking.’’

Firefighters were always popular.

The way they comported themselves in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, made them iconic. But in recent years, around here they’ve had to fight for their jobs, and they, like other people paid by taxpayers, are suddenly on the defensive.

“The anti-public union sentiment used to be in pockets. But now it’s national. If I had to put a time frame on it, I’d say there was a real change when the economy went downhill in 2008,’’ McCarthy said.

“People’s retirement plans took a big hit on the stock market. Then everybody looked at the public unions and said, ‘Hey, why I should be paying for their pensions and benefits when mine are being cut?’

“I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is, why are companies in the private sector so bent on profits that they don’t want to take care of their workers?

“There’s a bunch of think tanks out there, funded by private industry, and they’ve done a good job whipping up anti-union sentiment. But again, I’d ask people to ask themselves: Who’s making a big deal about this, and in whose interest is this being done?

“Making people hate government and resent public workers is making someone rich, but it isn’t the workers.

“I retired as a captain, after 34 years on the job, and my pension is $46,000. It goes up every year by $360. Did I game the system? I didn’t break any bank. I’m retiring, but I’m going to have to find another job, because I can’t live on that.

“I buried a firefighter in Framingham the other day. Cancer. He was 57. That’s the actuarial age of the average firefighter in Massachusetts. Firefighters aren’t living to ripe old ages.’’

McCarthy might be going away, but his union isn’t.

The smart money is on Ed Kelly, the former head of the Boston firefighters union, to replace him, and Kelly is no shrinking violet.

Neither is McCarthy. He fought for his members, all 12,000 of them. But the next few years will be a different fight, a harder fight.

“When I started on the job, we had five guys on a truck. You’re lucky to have three now. Two-thirds of the [fire] departments in Massachusetts are understaffed. Only 10 percent of departments can respond to a real disaster.

“If the feds didn’t come in after 9/11 with grants, we’d be in real trouble.’’

McCarthy is philosophical about the future.

“The anger is new. But the story isn’t new,’’ Bob McCarthy said. “It’s a story as old as time. The rich and the powerful turning working people against each other. And I ask you: who benefits from that?

“The greatest generation built the middle class. The powers that be are tearing it down. And where does that leave us as a country?’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.