Video of Dale Berry Describing the 1980 Firefighters Strike
Between 1968 and 1980, firefighters in large and small towns across Illinois fought for union recognition and municipal contracts. In an series of campaigns taking on an unprecedented intensity, firefighters used "Silver Spanner" strikes -- in which the fire departments continued to respond to fires, but did not otherwise attend to their duties -- to force intransigent city officials to improve wages, hours, and benefits. In 1980, the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, International Association of Firefighters (AFFI--IAFF-AFL-CIO) brought the fight to Chicago. Organized in 1902, the city's IAFF Local 2 was the oldest firefighters union in the country, but it had devolved into "more of a social club than a trade union." Matejka, p. 143) Local 2 had no written contract with the city, no collective bargaining procedures, nor any official labor representative in the city offices. "Handshake agreements" with the city gave the mayor control over patronage in the fire department, while limiting Local 2's power. More than anything else firefighters wanted a formal contract with the city in order to have a position from which to bargain for pay comparable to unionized departments in other cities, benefits packages, and updated equipment. During the 1979 mayoral campaign, then candidate Jane Byrne pledged that she would work out a contract with Chicago firefighters. Once elected, however, Byrne refused to give the firefighters a contract until the City Council passed a collective bargaining ordinance. In the meantime, she agreed to hold "discussions" with the union, but would not officially negotiate contract terms. Frustrated with Byrne, Local 2 President Frank Muscare called union members to strike on February 14, 1980. The next day the city secured a back-to-work order, and on February 16 Circuit Court Judge John Hechinger issued contempt of court citations to union leaders, including Muscare. Firefigthers ignored both the back-to-work order and the contempt citiations, while on February 17 five hundred union members picketed in front of City Hall, and on February 18 the Chicago Federation of Labor recognized the strike and promised to honor picket lines. On February 20, the firefighters agreed to go back to work for twenty-four hours, but when they tried to return, the city locked them out. Judge Hechinger sentenced Muscare to five months in jail and levied heavy fines against him and the union. Dale Berry, legal counsel for Local 2, remembers a crucial standoff on February 22 at McCormick Place, where the firefighters were holding a picket line and turned back a group of Teamsters who attempted to forcefully break up the picket. In addition to its struggles with an intransigent city administration and unsupportive unions, Local 2 had to overcome internal divisions over race and different levels of militancy among union members. Pressure mounted for both sides to settle the strike as the states electoral primary approached, and as deadly fires broke across the city. On March 7, the union agreed to a settlement; workers would return to work and the city agreed to binding arbitration. The city asked the court for leniency in fines against Local 2. Muscare remained in jail until March 21, and the union paid significant fines. Finally, in November 1980, Local 2 secured a contract.