Chicago Fire Fighters Local No. 2 History

Prior to the Civil War, the volunteer fire company was a private service in most American cities.  The early “fire society” or “fire brigade” was an association of local citizens banded together for the purpose of protecting community lives and property.   In 1831 the Illinois Legislature required any incorporated city or town to have a volunteer department.  Chicago’s first volunteer company was organized in 1835.

Firefighting soon became an established municipal service manned by a paid full-time work crew.  But this new organization also depended upon the generosity of local politicians for jobs, salaries, and working conditions.  A civil service system did not exist.  Firefighters were often dismissed when a new political boss gained control of the city.  Firefighting jobs were treated as political gifts and men were not always hired for their skills, but for their political contributions at election time.

Like other labor groups, Firefighters contested with management over wages, hours and conditions.  But because of their unique status and the community’s dependence upon them, their opportunities to press for change were often severely constricted.

As the years went on, dedicated firefighters realized that something needed to be done.  It was necessary to create an organization for the improvement of working conditions and the reputation of the profession.  The first such organizations formed began as mutual insurance groups to care for members and their families because of on the job death and injury.

An annual salary by the turn of the 20th century was only about $1,300 per year.  The cost of living at this time was relatively low, yet a firefighter’s salary was still not comparable to that of other skilled workers.  Chicago Firefighters labored under the “continuous duty system” which required them to live at their fire stations day and night with only three breaks for meals.  With luck, a fireman would receive a day off from this routine once or twice a month and, depending upon the disposition of his fire chief, a vacation break.  It became clear to Firefighters that an organized Labor Union was the solution to their problems.

Trade Unions for Firefighters were always opposed by city officials.  It was their contention that there was no place for Unions in fire departments.

Chicago Firefighters formed an independent Firemen’s Association in 1901, but this young Union had its problems.  In spite of intense opposition on the part of many city officials, and the suspension of many Union officers as they struggled to form the Firefighter’s Union, the officers and members succeeded.

The first president of the newly formed, Fireman’s Association of Chicago was Henry Bassett who died in the line of duty.  He was a Lieutenant on the 2nd Platoon and was killed by falling walls on December 19, 1905.

While the association lacked the clout an alliance with a larger organization could bring, in July 1906, the fledgling Union became the second Firefighters’ Union to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). There was no existing national Union for new groups of workers, the AFL issued what was known as a Federal Labor Union Charter to the new local group, which it did for Chicago and the few scattered firefighters locals around the nation that organized in later years prior to 1918.

Chicago’s AFL Federal Labor Union number was No. 12270. Pittsburgh, PA which organized in 1903 was the first Firefighter’s organization to be issued a charter by the AFL and they were Local Union No. 11431.

The association with the AFL allowed the Chicago Firefighters to work within the trade Union movement in Chicago and nationally to bring attention to the long hours and minimum pay that Firefighters received.

Still, a wholly Firefighter organization was needed to create greater solidarity among these individual Unions.  At the AFL Convention in November 1917, Edward McCahill of Chicago Local #12270 and other firefighter delegates were successful in passing a resolution allowing the Firefighters to form an International Union within the AFL.

This resolution was not without opposition as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Stablemen and Helpers of America and the Union of Steam and Operating Engineers filed protests against the issuance of such a charter because they claimed jurisdiction over some of the employees of the fire service – specifically the drivers of the equipment and the engineers who operated the steam pumpers.  These protests were not upheld by AFL President Samuel Gompers and the convention floor because the nature of firefighting created such a community of interest that were various separate Unions to have jurisdiction the organizing of firefighters would be ineffective, impractical and impossible.

Firefighter delegates then met in February 1918 at the call of AFL President Samuel Gompers to form an International Union of Firefighters.  With the formation of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) on February 28, 1918 the former AFL Unions were given affiliate numbers based on their date of affiliation with the AFL.  Chicago having been the second firefighter’s organization to join the AFL was designated as IAFF Local 2 – Chicago.  The immediate goals of the new national Union were better pay, a two-platoon system and the elimination of political assessments or mandatory donations from fire fighters.

During debate at this inaugural convention, the delegate from Chicago, Brother George B. Hargan stated … “the Chicago firemen went into the Labor Movement (AFL) after Pittsburgh … We went into it to improve conditions for the men of the Chicago Fire Department.  I said to the President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, …. We have had opposition in Chicago from the insurance interest and the Fire Department officials; the Chief of the Department organized what is known as the ‘Helmet Club’ … and everything we try to do, they try to undo.  It is a case of a house divided against itself.  When we got thru with one fight for improved conditions and lost, we had one-thousand dollars in debts, with our members leaving like rats leaving a sinking ship.  The loyal members stuck together and in less than two years we had the two platoon system; and just before leaving for this convention, we put over a pay raise that makes us one of the best paid fire departments in the United States.”

Firefighters’ wages remained the most important issue of the early 1920’s.  A first class firefighter only received $2,200 a year in 1922 under the new 84-hour system.  During the years between 1922 and 1927 a petition from Chicago Local No. 2 to the Chicago City Council, urging the City to grant a salary increase to the members of the fire department was routinely denied. Death pension benefits for widows and disability benefits for Firefighters were also nonexistent in Chicago.

It took the Great Depression to impress upon firefighters the urgent need for a strong and effective Union.  The proof of the value of effective organization was that in cities that were organized very few wage cuts or reductions in personnel resulted.  In cases where actual wage cuts occurred they were delayed, and thereby at least enabled the members to receive their prevailing salary for a longer period.  During this time, Local 2 aggressively campaigned for legislation that would protect its rank and file members.

The Union succeeded in reducing the work week of Firefighters to 72 hours, when in 1936, Mayor Edward J. Kelly gave Chicago Firefighters a day off for every seven on duty, beginning a new terminology that Illinois Fire Fighters still use for additional days off – a “Kelly” Day.  Chicago fire fighters were so fond of Kelly, they named him an “Honorary Fire Chief” in July 1934.

By the late 1930’s, public opinion had become more favorable toward Unions.  Local 2 had earned the attention and respect of city officials by increasing the efficiency and professional stature of the fire department in Chicago.  Few could argue with the fact that firefighting has become a very professional service.

In the 1950’s, Local 2 continued its fight for shorter hours and won a reduction to 63 hours per week.  Negotiations during the last several decades have followed a philosophy that the hours and wages of a firefighter should be comparable to those of other skilled AFL workers.

While John J. (Spike) Lynch was President (1958 to 1968), Local 2 realized there was more than one way to win benefits for its members.  A struggle must be waged on two fronts – City Hall and the State Legislature.  Local 2’s legislative committee has drafted proposals on pension benefits, hospitalization plans, civil service procedures, and workmen’s compensation laws.“There’s a direct relationship between the bread box and the ballot box, and what the Union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.” – UAW President Walter Reuther

Mayor Richard J. Daley was the ultimate politician.  From 1955 until his death in 1976, he created and perpetuated a political machine with a power base built on a strong patronage system.  It gave him control of more than a million votes.    He loved his city and adhered to the “common man” ethic.  For this reason, he greatly appreciated his Fire and Police Departments, considering them the backbone of, not only his city, but his patronage system as well. He was a fair-minded man which led him to tell the Executive Board at a meeting in October 1976, “Even though you never got a contract out of me, you better get one when I’m gone.” Mayor Daley died on December 20, 1976.

Mayor Daley’s successor was Michael Bilandic who tried feverishly to conduct business as usual in the City of Chicago.  Mayor Bilandic was up to the challenge of keeping Local 2, and any other labor organization from getting a labor contract that they were hoping for with this new mayor.  Once again, they were denied.

Mayor Bilandic was a one termer.  Not only did the “Blizzard of 79” kill his mayoral career, but a spunky, aggressive women with short blonde hair who went by the name of “Janie” challenged him.  Local 2 members all remember her.  Mayor Daley’s Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Jane Byrne took the title of Mayor for the City of Chicago away from Michael Bilandic.  Janie was willing to talk to those shutout from City Hall and was ready to listen.  The days of the handshake were over.  We want what our fellow brothers have in Detroit, New York and Boston have – a contract now!!

The city had the spunky, aggressive women in their corner and we had a tough, spirted, outspoken leader ready to take on City Hall.  He was Local 2’s new President Francis J. “Moon” Muscare.   As a matter of fact, while he was on the job, he was disciplined quite a few times.  This is the man that Local 2 members put their sights on to get them their contract.   The Chicago Firefighter’s strike means different things to different people.   Some felt that the strike was a blemish on the city’s history.  Some striking firemen and paramedics would tell you that it was an important step for the maturing of the department.  They would tell you that without the strike, they would not have the contract which is now so dear to the firemen.  Therefore, was the strike a necessary evil to aid the 4,000 firemen who loved their jobs and risked their lives, or were the striker’s criminals who deserted their posts and put the city at risk?  The following will give a history of the strike and a brief analysis.  Maybe then, the strike will be more understandable from both schools of thought.

At the beginning of tensions that lead up to the fire fighters strike, the department included about 4,000 Active Firemen.  Mayor Jane M. Byrne utilized the weight that this Union, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2, and its members could bear on the outcome of an election.  She catered to their long-standing demands to acquire a written contract between the City and the Union. With the help of their votes, which she won due to her promises, she was elected to office.  Local 2 never had a contract with the city and eagerly awaited legislation which would bring this covenant to fruition. The leaders of the soon-to-be factions were divided by their sides of the struggle but were very similar in regards to their demeanor.  Our current Union president was a brash, flamboyant and charismatic leader.  His convictions and resolve were strong to the point that a clash with Byrne would be imminent.  Jane Byrne, who during her campaign for the mayoral position exuded a pro-Union position, now carried herself as a tough-minded, strike busting Union enemy.  She would prove to be equally stubborn as Muscare.  The odds seemed against the two factions reaching a settlement without a great deal of rhetoric and controversy.

On August 22, 1978 Frank Muscare and the Executive Board approved a first draft of a contract for Local No. 2.  On October 14th and 15th, Union members voted on the issue of going out on “strike” for the first time.  The ballots were counted, and the rank and file voted against authorizing a strike.  The count was close: 1729 against and 1664 for a strike.  The City’s administration never met with our Union’s negotiating team, and this was a direct slap in the face to all Union members.

On August 2nd, 1979 Mayor Byrne’s advisors told Local 2 Union Officials that a contract would have to wait approval of the Collective Bargaining Ordinance by the City Council.  On August 20th, President Mucare and the Executive Board began weekly meetings in the Bismarck Hotel; but again City officials boycotted them.  The Union had waited eleven months of 1979 and still no one in the city was meeting with Local 2 at the Bismarck and there was “No” contract!

On December 15th and 16th, Union members went to vote at Chicago Plumbers Hall and after the ballots were counted, the vote this time was 2,326 to strike and 658 not to strike.  The firemen authorized the Union’s Executive Board to call a “strike” whenever it saw fit.  One city official informed Mayor Byrne that “she was messing around with the wrong group.  You know how most Unions have a brotherhood, well this Union is a brotherhood, because these guys ate, drank, and slept together, and their strength was their brotherhood.”

On January 15, 1980, Union officials rejected the city’s proposal, that only Firefighters could be in the Union excluding the officers, because they were management.  Six of the eight members of the negotiating team were officers including President Frank Muscare.

On February 14th, 1980, the mood of Local 2 Firefighters and paramedics was very somber throughout the department knowing that in just a few minutes Union members would be staging a strike.  At 0515 hours they walked out.  This was a time when each person had to evaluate their own situation and make a decision that would affect them for the rest of their lives – “Do I Walk or Do I Stay?” They walked out at 0515 and at many fire houses strike signs hadn’t even been delivered yet.   Local 2 Member Ed Tetzner said to one news channel, “The lines have been drawn in the sand, we asked and asked for the city to meet with our Union.  We were promised a contract from the Mayor, but all we got were broken promises.  Well for one thing, there are three men on the back step of a garbage truck in Chicago, and only two men on the back step of a Fire Engine.  Second of all, we don’t have self-contained breathing apparatuses for the firefighter who risks his life like in many other cities in this country.  Our equipment is junk, our fire clothes are shabby and leak water, there are no radios for communication and I could go on and on.  But I will now help my brother Firefighters get a barrel, and we will light a fire.”

Mayor Byrne was mad as hell and told the media that only a small portion of the fire department walked out.  But soon, more accurate figures emerged from the Union that 97% of all the department was out on strike.  This figure was determined by the radio and phone systems put in place for the event.  The Union regarding the strike, was more informed than the upper echelon of the fire department.   The Fire Commissioner Richard Albrecht issued a directive for all fire department personnel to return to work.  The order was broadcasted over the radio and television.  But the directive failed and firefighters and paramedics across the city stayed out!  “We have solidarity!”  Muscare said with 97% of our Brothers and Sisters who walked out on strike.  Members stood defiant, and some prayed around a wood-burning fifty-five gallon steel barrel on that first long night.  City officials prepared to go into the Circuit Court to seek contemp citations against the strikers for disobeying a direct order.   By day four, many problems appeared.  Members were getting a lot of flack at home from terrified wives and kids, because Mayor Byrne held a press conference and warned any strikers that they would be fired and replaced if they did not return to work by 10:00a.m.   Circuit Court Judge Hechinger pleaded with the Union and gave them an ultimatum.  Get back to work by the 10:00p.m. deadline or you will face contempt of his court.   A rally was set in the Daley Center for the next day.  At the rally, hundreds of Union strikers attended carrying signs and chanting “We want a contract” over and over.  President Frank Muscare stated that the negotiating team was ordered back to court to face the contempt charges.  He also said that things were going to get tougher, but wouldn’t go back without a signed contract!  The hearing ended in a stalemate, and Judge Hechinger imposed a $40,000 a day fine on the Union and the Union leaders for refusing to end their so-called “Illegal Strike.”  A mass meeting was held at the McCormick Inn Frank Muscare addressed the strikers and said, “The Judge asked us to order all of you back to work, and your Executive Board said NO!”   Mayor Byrne told the media about, what she called, “The Goon Squad” calling them terrorists!  These were the men who traveled from firehouse to firehouse that were working and were trying to get the working firemen out on strike.  On the seventh day, all the Unions and negotiators returned to Judge Hechingers courtroom.  Frank Muscare and CFD negotiators agreed to go back to work, but only for 24 hours without a full contract.  At the same time, around the clock negotiations would continue.  The Union insisted on amnesty for all strikers.  The Mayor agreed to amnesty, except for those engaged in criminal or quasi-criminal activity.   Finally an agreement was formed.  The men would return to the firehouse and talks would continue.

February 21st at 1100 hours, members began signing in at firehouses all across the city.  The mood was good, but many men remained worried.  The non-striking fireman could only express a sigh of relief knowing that their fatigue-filled days would soon be over.  The jubilation was unanimous – BUT, again the city refused to meet, because all picket signs were not down.  They threw the Union president in jail, and enforced a lock out of the firehouses.  President Muscare was found guilty of criminal contempt, and sentenced to 5 months in the Cook County Jail.  Across the city, barrels were again being lit up and members were angry!  They didn’t know what was going to happen, but one thing was certain, they would stick together!

Friday, February 22nd the news wasn’t good.  The Mayor thought now that President Muscare was in jail he was out of her hair and this strike would end her way.   The Union made a formal appeal to the entire labor community for assistance and support against the city’s Union-busting tactics.  William McClennan of the International Association of Fire Fighters Union agreed to come to Chicago with a staff representative from the International.  The meeting/rally was brought to order at 2000 hours.  Bill Reddy tried to bring everyone up to date.  There were about 4,000 people, from firemen to wives and children.  There was a phone on the podium, and it began to ring.  It was President Muscare from the Cook County Jail.  The crowd roared yelling out his name.  He said, “to stay strong and listen to Bill Reddy.  Also, to do what he was doing in jail.  Keep your chin-up and your back against the wall!”

On February 27th , day fourteen, the Fire Commissioner Richard Albrecht issued a final ultimatum.  If the firefighters return to work by 8:00p.m., there would be no disciplinary action toward them.  But, the city said no matter what happens, the seven Battalion Chiefs who went on strike would be fired!

On February 28th, the Firefighters ignored the Fire Commissioner’s return to work order, and on February 29th, the sixteenth day, the city and the Union rejected the Federal Mediator’s plan to resume talks.  This now meant that there hadn’t been any serious talks for some six days. Members returned to the barrels, only to hear more bad news.  The Federal Mediator returned to Washington, because he was convinced the negotiations were hopelessly deadlocked.  The bitter cold wind was out of the north, and to make matters worse, it began to snow.  Angry and cold, members huddled together around the barrels.  Some just prayed while many other spit into the burning barrel saying, “who do they think they are, playing with our lives.”

Sunday, March 2nd, in spite of the cold, thousands of Firefighters and their wives and children showed this city that they were united.  As they rallied, Reverend Jesse Jackson was in a meeting with Mayor Byrne.  She agreed to let the Reverend enter the conflict as an unofficial mediator.

A Union meeting was called at the International Amphitheater.  This “could be it”.  A new pin came out called the “Brotherhood of the Barrel”, and members were told to wear them with pride.

March 6th and day 21, the Union meeting/rally scheduled for that night was sure to be a full house.  Thousands of people showed up wearing their B.O.B. pins, their worried looks reflected their hatred, anger and fear.  There were not many smiles.  The City wanted members to go back to work while the negotiators met.  The Union wanted amnesty for all, but the City wouldn’t budge on that issue.  A call went to Moon in jail and he was mad as hell.  He said if members accept this, they will lose dignity as Firefighters forever.  The vote was taken and not many approved the proposal.  The vote was loud and clear – “NO!”  Thursday,

March 7th, day 22, and members returned to Daley Plaza.  Jesse Jackson was now with the Mayor to inform her of the last vote of NO!  He emerged from this meeting with the Mayor, and came over to address the crowd of angry strikers.   For more than six hours Jackson acted as a shuttling mediator between the City and the Union.  After many hours of heavy negotiating they called a recess until 1000 hours Friday, March 8th.  Out on the barrel the mood was very upbeat because now after some thirteen days negotiations were back on.

On March 7th, the 23rd day,  Mayor Byrne released a press statement that made negotiations stop again.  She said that the City was negotiating an end to the strike, not negotiating a contract.  This statement enraged the firemen and the line in the sand was drawn, once again.  Somehow that statement was smoothed out by saying an interim agreement and a contract was just a matter of semantics.  Talks continued.  An air of mixed tension hung over the city that day and evening as members paced back and forth in front of the firehouses.  The barrels glowed at the base and just a small amount of flames was issuing from the top as members waited for the news from the Bismarck Hotel.  It all came down to 3 issues, amnesty, all strikers must work a day without pay, and seven Chiefs be suspended without pay for four days.  It was agreed!   It was midnight Saturday, March 8th, members assembled at the McCormick Inn.  They were tired, unshaven, cold and their heavy coats smelled of smoke from standing around the Barrel. “There were 3,500 guys or more that packed that ballroom.  We were united and there was a strong sense of pride that filled the room.”  The formal ratification came at 01:37 hours after Bill Reddy called for a vote.  It was unanimously accepted – END OF STRIKE!!

Though the win was gratifying, a huge question hung in the balance.  Now what?  Back to the firehouses to face fellow Brothers who crossed the picket lines and decided to work or those no one knew who came on the job during those 23 days and who would now be beside the veterans working in life and death situations.  Everyone had their own reason why they walked and why they stayed  – who can fault who?  Who can place blame?   Everyone did what they felt they had to do at that time.  It is a stronger Union as a result.  Now, its time to move forward.  We are forever negotiating better benefits for our members, striving to keep what we have and to obtain even more. As the faces of our ranks change over time, the men and women of Local 2 will always stand steadfast in our resolve to respond to those in need of help; never wavering in our duty to aid and assist those who find themselves in dire situations. Our Union is like a family and families don’t always agree.

Our Brotherhood is our bond and we celebrate our differences as a way to better serve the Citizens of Chicago and keep each other safe.