Building the Fire Labor Movement
The period following World War II was a turbulent one for organized labor in the United States.
With much of the pre-war workforce away in battle, union organizing flourished during the War. Pay and benefits expanded even with a voluntary national strike moratorium. When the War ended and the work force returned, business and industry tried to slash pay and benefits, prompting a wave of strikes and an equally strong backlash from the federal government. By 1950, Congress had passed the Taft-Hartley Act, severely restricting the rights of unions. Labor found itself at a crossroads.
For firefighters in California, much of this unrest was still largely observed from afar. While municipal incorporation steadily rose throughout the state, the majority of firefighters were still either volunteers or unrepresented. When Federated Fire Fighters of California was chartered as the IAFF state council in 1938, there were only a handful of active IAFF locals in California. Over the succeeding years, growth in that number was slow: By 1950, there were still only about two-dozen FFFC affiliates, even as total IAFF affiliations grew to more than 1,000.
In Sacramento, FFFC entered the 1950s still largely as a one-man operation. Founding president Milton Terry had moved on to become the IAFF 10th District vice president, but he retained his position as the FFFC’s legislative advocate. Terry continued the strategic partnership between FFFC, the California State Labor Federation and the California Federation of Civil Service Associations.
The work in Sacramento was an uphill slog for Terry and his allies. With the legislative and executive branches of state government solidly in the hands of anti-
labor elected officials, much of their effort settled around killing unfriendly legislation, such as the League of Cities’ periodic attempts to eliminate the heart presumption and “4850 time” legislation passed in 1939. Federated Fire Fighters also marshaled its alliances to beat back efforts to force firefighters to pay into the state’s unemployment insurance program even though they did not qualify for benefits.
The highest priority for Federated Fire Fighters at that time was state legislation reducing the crippling work week, still ranging from 72 to 96 hours in most departments throughout California. The first 48-Hour-Week legislation was introduced in 1946, and it was regularly introduced in subsequent sessions. In each case, it was defeated, often failing even to clear its first committee hurdle.
In 1951, Federated Fire Fighters suffered another setback with the sudden death of Milton Terry. Herman Shawver of San Diego Firefighters Local 145, then serving his second term as president of FFFC, was appointed to fill Terry’s post as IAFF 10th District vice president. Shawver, in turn, was replaced as FFFC president by D.D. “Whitey” Dean of Long Beach Firefighters Local 372.
With Sacramento logjammed on firefighter issues, locals took matters into their own hands. Though there was no collective bargaining, strong locals in cities like San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco and Pasadena won reductions in hours through negotiations with their city leaders.
In other cities, firefighters took their cases directly to the voters through local ballot propositions. Firefighters had been using the ballot box to achieve their ends since the turn of the century, when San Francisco firefighters successfully established salary formulas in the 1907 charter. Initiatives in Los Angeles established a two-platoon schedule and a city pension plan.
In 1950, Oakland Firefighters Local 55 took a pension measure to the voters, having already defeated a punitive city-backed, two-tiered pension plan. “The campaign committee used every possible media of advertisement to explain the issue, such as radio, newspapers, sound trucks, billboards, throw-aways and personal appearances by trained speakers before every public body,” said Local 55 President Eugene McNamara, a former FFFC president. Spending what was, at the time, the unheard of sum of $30,000, the local won its pension fight.
Up the road in the state’s capital, another ballot fight was brewing over work hours. Sacramento Firefighters Local 522, then representing only firefighters in the city of Sacramento, fought for and won a ballot measure to reduce firefighter work weeks from 72 to 60 hours. “Under this system, the efficiency of the department has increased, and fire losses have steadily decreased,” said Local 522 President B.B. Whiteaker.
These types of victories, while sweet, tended to be the exception, rather than the rule. In most cases, IAFF affiliates were, at best, tolerated and more often openly scorned. In 1951, the city of South Pasadena escalated the fight over public employee union rights with Ordinance #1107, specifically forbidding any city employee from being a member of a union that’s affiliated with an external organization. The law was clearly directed at South Pasadena’s IAFF local, as theirs was the only municipal union with an outside affiliation. South Pasadena’s firefighters responded by claiming a “moral right” to belong to IAFF, but ultimately the local agreed to withdraw from the International in return for a modest salary hike and reduction in the work week from 72 to 66 hours.
Stunned by what it viewed as “capitulation,” the IAFF revoked South Pasadena’s charter. The city’s firefighters would not re-affiliate until 1995. More importantly, the South Pasadena debacle helped galvanize organized labor around a shared objective: legislation guaranteeing firefighters the right to organize.
A 1952 California Labor Federation resolution supporting the idea kicked off a seven-year quest, led by the FFFC’s legislative advocate and president Albert E. Albertoni. With the election of Edmund G. “Pat” Brown as governor in 1958, the stage was set, and the next year, Brown signed AB 618, making firefighters the first public employees with an explicit right to organize into unions. (see “Landmarks: The Right to Organize”, page 27)
As it turned out, getting the law signed was the easy part. Throughout the legislative fight, the League of California Cities had insisted, among other things, that the measure was not applicable to charter cities. When AB 618 was signed anyway, two cities – Palo Alto and Los Angeles – decided to test the League’s theory by simply ignoring the law. Palo Alto went so far as to fire the local union president (a practice still all too common at the time) and tried to enforce its own provisions banning firefighters from joining any organization. In Los Angeles, the city fathers sought to circumvent the union by coercing members to join the less confrontational benevolent association, the Los Angeles Police and Fire Protective League.
Federated Fire Fighters of California sought and received an opinion from Attorney General Stanley Mosk in 1960 confirming the requirement that charter cities abide by the new law. The cities pressed their cases in separate three-year legal fights that ended with landmark state Supreme Court rulings upholding AB 618.
Recognizing the statewide significance of the issue, the Federated Fire Fighters’ Executive Board authorized the then-unimaginable sum of $12,000 to support the locals in their legal fight. “These cases have been sponsored by the Federated Fire Fighters of California in their entirety and should remind the members of this Local of the before-mentioned lawful rights and benefits granted the members, and only the members, of the IAFF and the Federated,” wrote Local 1014 President Glenn Hyde.
Firefighters had won the right to organize. They still did not have the right to bargain their pay, benefits and working conditions or negotiate grievance procedures. Those battles lay ahead.
Creating new rights for firefighters wasn’t the only area where Federated Fire Fighters made its mark. In the early ‘60s, the IAFF and FFFC pushed back against efforts by cities to merge police and fire departments into a single public safety entity. In 1950, Sunnyvale had become the first California city to consolidate its police and fire departments. Since then, the consolidation “movement” took hold in many areas. Much of the impetus was in reaction to the growing union movement within the fire service. Unlike firefighters, police officers were still almost entirely non-union. Consolidating the two would give them the option of dealing with a labor group they felt would be more compliant.
In 1961, San Diego City Manager George Bean proposed a consolidated police and fire department for his city. (Hilariously, Bean also proposed that the city manager be classified as a “safety officer”). If enacted, San Diego would have been far-and-away the largest consolidated department in the nation. San Diego Firefighters Local 145 engaged the FFFC, IAFF and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, as well as the National Fire Protection Association. Even fire brigades from England, where consolidated departments were banned, came in to help make the case against public safety mergers.
In the end, it was no contest. The San Diego City Council voted unanimously to permanently shelve the idea. FFFC published a small volume detailing the arguments against the San Diego proposal, which served as a blueprint for other jurisdictions attacking the idea. While cities would continue to occasionally float the idea as a bargaining tactic, as of 2014, Sunnyvale remained the only consolidated department in California.
When Federated Fire Fighters of California celebrated its 25th anniversary in October of 1963, it boasted more than 7,000 members and was one of the largest state associations in the IAFF. One of its former presidents – Ray Shukraft of San Diego Firefighters Local 145 – had been appointed as the California State Fire Marshal. Another – Fred Smith of Local 1014 – was now the right-hand man at the California State Labor Federation.
At the Capitol, FFFC moved to increase its lobbying presence. In 1962, the executive board created the position of General Vice President and named Kenneth Larson of Local 1014, then the Central Vice President, to the post. A member of Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014, Larson had been working on behalf of his local and FFFC in Sacramento since 1958.
In his new role, Larson became FFFC’s paid legislative advocate, taking up residence in Sacramento during the biennial legislative sessions. With Smith’s ascension to the Labor Federation’s high command, Larson also landed a spot on the Labor Fed’s executive board. At the time, he was the only public employee representative on the Labor Fed board. Add to that Smith’s new role and there was little doubt FFFC had a powerful voice in state labor circles.
Around the same time, California got its first seat on the IAFF high command when former Federated Fire Fighters President Al Albertoni was elected as the IAFF’s secretary-treasurer in 1964. Albertoni won the post when incumbent Secretary-Treasurer John Kabachus decided to challenge three-term president William Buck. “Nobody thought he could win, as the IAFF was really centered on the East Coast,” recalled Alfred K. Whitehead, IAFF General President Emeritus. Albertoni would serve until 1972.
The friends in high places paid off. With a larger profile in Sacramento, stronger ties with its labor partners and a big fish at the International, FFFC enjoyed its most productive legislative period.
Firefighter presumption laws, 4850 protections and retirement formulas were all extended to county firefighters covered by the 1937 Act;
In 1965, Governor Brown signed AB 2081, securing a 2% at 55 retirement formula for safety employees under what would soon be known as the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS);
Legislation in the late 1960s increased the maximum compensation from 50% to 75% and authorized a 2% at 50 benefit;
The minimum retirement age for safety employees was reduced from 55 to 50.
In 1968, public sector labor as a whole won the most significant victory in its history with the passage of Senate Bill 1228, the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. Signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, the MMBA authorized, but did not require, collective bargaining for cities and counties. The measure allowed for the designation of exclusive bargaining units and required that public agencies “meet and confer” with these authorized groups on any and all actions that affect their negotiated contracts.
With the approval of MMBA, IAFF affiliates were able to consolidate their position as the designated bargaining unit. Within a year, Santa Monica Firefighters Local 1109 secured the first collectively-bargained firefighter contract under MMBA. Others quickly followed.
Nowhere was MMBA’s influence more pronounced than in the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles City Firefighters Local 748 had spent decades in the shadows of the larger, and more management-friendly Los Angeles Police and Fire Protective League. The year before MMBA’s passage, however, the law enforcement-dominated LAPFPL infuriated its firefighter members by agreeing to Mayor Sam Yorty’s imposition of a salary structure that paid police officers more than firefighters. “It was the greatest organizing tool ever,” recalled former L.A. City president Don Wallace.
With help from IAFF and Local 1014, Local 748 launched a massive organizing push that enabled it to win the fight to be the exclusive bargaining unit for Los Angeles firefighters. “When the dust cleared, they were suddenly a 2,000 member local,” said Brian Hatch, longtime CPF Legislative Advocate who, at that time, was president of Ontario Firefighters Local 1430. (Los Angeles City would eventually reclaim the IAFF local number it had gained during its brief existence in 1919, becoming United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112).
Another event in 1968 would have a profound effect on FFFC and the firefighter labor movement. From its inception, the International Association of Fire Fighters had established a no-strike policy as one of its central tenets. Since its creation, Article III, Section 2 of the Federated Fire Fighters’ Constitution and Bylaws made that view plain: “We shall not strike or take active part in sympathetic strikes, as we are formed to protect the lives and property of communities in case of fire or other serious hazards.”
Throughout the 1960s, this stance was being challenged by affiliates throughout the nation. Still largely without collective bargaining rights, locals were worn down by decades of management abuse and disrespect. Even more infuriating to firefighters was a campaign by local agencies to break the link between salaries for firefighters and police officers.
For decades, pay parity had been a given, but law enforcement, unlike firefighters, was still almost entirely non-union. Cities decided to reward police for their compliance and punish firefighters for their defiance. In addition to L.A. Mayor Yorty’s attempt to divide and conquer, parity was also broken in Berkeley and Fresno, the latter violating a decades-old charter provision passed by voters.
IAFF President Buck staved off a revolt on the strike issue at the 1966 convention by creating a study commission. Ultimately, Buck couldn’t hold back the tide. Delegates voted to remove the “no strike” clause from the IAFF Constitution and Bylaws at the 1968 convention.
The first California local to test the new policy was Vallejo Local 1186. Protesting the city’s decision to pull back a promised pay raise, Vallejo’s police officers and firefighters walked off the job on July 17, 1969. It was only the second time in U.S. history that both police and firefighters had gone on strike together. The five-day public safety strike virtually shut down the city, as building and trades union members halted construction on all city building projects in support.
The Vallejo strike ended with an agreement on a 1% a year pay raise over three years, and a promise of no reprisals. But its real impact on the fire service came the next year. That’s when a citizens group, with the support of Local 1186, filed a ballot measure to create the option to submit future impasses in labor negotiations to binding arbitration. Vallejo voters handily approved the measure, making the city the first with local arbitration. The battle over binding arbitration would be a defining feature of firefighter-management relations and a central plank in California Professional Firefighters’ legislative agenda for the next four decades.
Vallejo was the first California local to go on strike, but it wasn’t the last. Over the next year, three other local unions would take the step, none more spectacularly than Sacramento (see “Firefighters on Strike,” page 5). But while the firefighter labor movement in California prepared to “cross the Rubicon” into the uncharted waters of labor strife, Federated Fire Fighters of California was hurtling toward its own “day of reckoning.”