At the end of 2011, the city of Allentown had a problem. There was a gaping hole in its fire department.
No, not a literal hole. Forty-three of its firefighters retired at once. Not only did the city lose wisdom and experience. But suddenly, it owed millions of dollars more every year in retirement benefits it couldn't afford.
What drove these city firefighters out of their jobs?
A generous labor contract, awarded under previous mayor Roy Afflerbach, that was about to expire. The firefighters wanted to lock in their pension benefits before that contract became less generous.
John Stribula, the president of Allentown's firefighters union, retired in 2011.
Stribula says he loved being a firefighter. He still dreams about it, and his heart aches when he sees the other firefighters respond to emergencies without him. But the benefits were too good to pass up.
"I probably would've had to work another six, seven, eight, or nine years to get to the same pension that I was at, and if I were to become injured, that wouldn't be possible," Stribula said.
One of the perks of the contract was that it made it possible for the firefighters to spike their pensions.