Those who are familiar with my public position know that I believe we could do without unions, primarily due to organizations in place to protect workers -- OSHA, Worker's Compensation, state Department of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control, and Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, to name but a few. Recently, though, I have been rethinking my stand.

For me, unions were all about a guaranteed job, guaranteed wages and benefits; jobs were created and saved because of your union standing. As an at-will employee, I never had to think about these issues. What a luxury.

As I ran for State Representative last year, I had the opportunity to speak with corporate CEOs, union presidents, union employees, at-will employees, out-of-work-desperate-for- any-work voters.

This is what I learned: Unions were the backbone of our country and helped create the middle class. It was the unions that ensured safer working conditions and hours in the first half of the 20th Century. After World War II, a solid union job bolstered by the G.I. Bill, (which helped me and my first husband purchase our first home), gave people an opportunity to elevate themselves out of working poverty to become something more.

Additionally, unions continued to fight for safeguards in the workplace that prevented injury or death and, in theory, prevented poor-quality products from being made; they set the industry standards. But something went wrong along the way -- laziness, indifference, a sense of entitlement set in -- or did it? As in the private sector, there are employees who work harder than others. The difference with at-will employees is that if you don't produce, you're out. Well, the same holds true for unions.

While our unions were becoming stronger, they were also investing in their pensions, and Wall Street gambled against them in some form or another, without the checks and balances that should be in place. The union employees want what has been promised them, and truly, I can't blame them.

But times have changed, and no longer do we have the assurance of a fully funded pension to retire on. We are all contributing to our retirements. I have no problem with that.

Now, what's going on within the Fairfield Fire Department fuels the fight against unions. The way I see it, a few people took advantage of existing loopholes in their contract, and the longtime practice has come to light. We all know the contract language must be changed during the next round of negotiations. I don't believe there is a deep-seeded union conspiracy afoot, or that our first selectman isn't doing his job right. However, I do support having private counsel come in to investigate the union practices; it will enlighten tax payers to the substance of contracts.

Heather Dean

RTM District 4