Firefighters on Strike
In early autumn of 1970, Sacramento firefighters were hot under the collar – literally and figuratively.
An unexpected return visit from the Central Valley summer pushed temperatures close to triple digits on October 1st, dampening the brow and souring the disposition of just about everyone in California’s capital city. Inside Sacramento’s firehouses, tempers were rising within the ranks – not because of the weather, but in reaction to a new regime of “young Turks” at City Hall bent on breaking their union.
For more than a decade, Sacramento Firefighters – IAFF Local 522 – had managed to negotiate relative stability in wages and working hours for its members. Though firefighting was hardly the most lucrative occupation at the time (most Local 522 members had side jobs to make ends meet), the practice of comparing salaries with 15 similarly-sized cities kept pay decent, and brought the work week down from 72 hours to 56 hours.
Local 522 was considered one of the stronger members of the statewide Federated Fire Fighters of California – the organization that would later be known as California Professional Firefighters. During the early 1960s, one of Local 522’s board members, Kenneth Severit, had been Federated Fire Fighters’ longest-serving president to that point. The state organization had helped win passage of California’s first public employee bargaining law – the Meyers-Millias-Brown Act of 1968 (MMBA). For the first time, employers would be required to negotiate with their employees.
Of course, local governments really hate it when the state makes them do something they don’t like. When that happens, some don’t just get mad, they try to get even.
Urged on by a desire to reclaim control of its domain, Sacramento’s new City Hall regime decided to make an example of its firefighters. No longer would salaries be compared with cities of similar size; instead, they would be pegged to those of six tiny rural communities in the area. The city abandoned its long-standing policy of pay parity between police and firefighters. City negotiators also dug in their heels at the table, mocking the MMBA’s “meet-and-confer” process with a poisonous public relations campaign against their own employees.
“They publicly demeaned us in every way they could,” recalled Richard Mayberry, then a six-year veteran of the Sacramento Fire Department and an officer in Local 522. “They slandered us (by saying) we didn’t deserve as much, we were uneducated, we slept all the time, played ping pong and all of these things. They knew it would anger us.”
In earlier times, firefighters would have had no choice but to suck it up and take what the city gave them. Not only were they legally prohibited from going on strike, but also their own national union, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), had a decades-old “no strike” provision in its constitution and bylaws.
By the mid-1960s, however, attitudes had changed. Under pressure from its own “young Turks,” the IAFF removed the “no strike” clause in 1968. Within two years, both Vallejo and San Diego had experienced public safety walkouts. Vallejo’s wrenching five-day strike, which involved both firefighters and police officers, prompted citizens there to approve the state’s first local binding arbitration statute.
In Sacramento, the negotiating team did all it could to find common ground, including offering neutral arbitration of the salaries, work hours and holiday pay. The city wasn’t budging. On September 29th, Sacramento firefighters overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, formally informing the city of the vote in a September 30th telegram from Federated Fire Fighters of California President Earl Dunn. When dozens of uniformed firefighters crammed into the Sacramento council chambers that October 1st evening, they knew it was their last stand.
“You speak of loyalty (but) our people know the difference between loyalty and submission to exploitation,” Local 522 Executive Board member John Steely roared in a thundering presentation to the council. “We have come to the point beyond which we will tolerate no more of the insults.”
For the firefighters sitting in that room, and those outside of it, the stakes could not have been higher. Because public safety strikes were illegal, every firefighter who went on strike was at risk of being fired and even arrested. “You’re basically quitting,” said Mayberry. “Every single person who participated was putting his future and his freedom at risk.”
Nonetheless, on October 7, 1970, the members of Sacramento Firefighters Local 522 – 97 percent of them – walked off the job.
“They thought that only about 40 percent of us would go out, and with the other 60 percent in the stations, they could break the strike quickly and then fire whoever they wanted to,” said Mayberry. “They misjudged us.”
It wasn’t just the resolve of the local union that the city underestimated. They also seriously misjudged the level of support the firefighters would have at their disposal. IAFF 10th District Vice President Vince Riddle was dispatched to Sacramento along with a dedicated representative. The IAFF would eventually provide financial support during and after the strike, including paying the legal expenses for firefighters who had been arrested.
The Federated Fire Fighters of California provided legislative, technical and on-the-ground coordination, through its executive secretary-treasurer, Kenneth Larson. Well-connected and experienced, Larson ultimately served as a strategist, advisor and public spokesperson for the striking firefighters. Since Sacramento firefighters hadn’t been especially active in their local Central Labor Council, Larson and Federated Fire Fighters reached out to the statewide labor community – a connection that would provide critical support as the walkout wore on.
When the strike was called, city officials immediately notified Governor Ronald Reagan. At their behest, Reagan had ordered state firefighters from the California Division of Forestry (later known as CAL FIRE) to stage outside the city limits. Nearly 100 state firefighters moved in and set up shop in the city’s firehouses. The CDF personnel were still largely wildland firefighters, without much training in urban fire protection. They also were not unionized: The four-year-old California Division of Forestry Employees Association (CDFEA) had not yet become the bargaining unit.
As the strike continued, Local 522 and its allies from around the state stepped up the pressure. Morale was lifted immeasurably a week into the strike when bus drivers in the Amalgamated Transit Union walked off the job in solidarity with the firefighters. For four days, the city’s entire bus system was shut down. “Those guys were heroes to us, and they still are,” said Mayberry.
Firefighters picketed their stations, City Hall and the home and job sites of council members. Resentful of the state personnel, strikers taunted them as “scabs”. Mayberry was himself arrested for “failure to disperse”, alleged to have blocked heavy equipment from operating at a local construction site. He would later be tried and acquitted in a jury trial presided over by Earl Warren, Jr., the son of the former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.
After three long weeks of wrangling in the courthouse and picketing on the streets, the city of Sacramento won a permanent injunction against the striking firefighters. Although most of the tenured firefighters returned to their jobs, it would take Local 522 four months to win the return of striking probationary firefighters, who’d been summarily terminated. The city also succeeded in breaking pay parity between firefighters and law enforcement.
Still, while it may have “won” on the issues, the city lost the big prize. Sacramento Local 522 found new solidarity and immediately turned its efforts to political action. The local also expanded its reach into many of the small departments that the city had previously tried to set them against. Ultimately, the Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522 would become one of the largest IAFF Locals in California.
“They not only didn’t break the union,” said Maybery, “they made the union.”
The length and bitterness of the Sacramento walkout seemed to temporarily dampen the urge for firefighters to strike and for management to push the issue as aggressively as Sacramento had done. Over the next four years, only one firefighter local – San Mateo County Firefighters Local 2255 (later 2400) – would be compelled to walk off the job. Their five-day strike (which began on the same day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974) again brought confrontation with the state fire crews ordered into the stations to take their places. The strike also forced the shutdown of the Bay Meadows racetrack when unionized workers there refused to cross the firefighters’ picket line.
Down south in Santa Barbara County, the cauldron bubbled over again. Their average pay – $935 a month – was also well below comparable departments. Worse, while most every other department in the state had moved to a 56-hour week, Santa Barbara County firefighters were still, in effect, working a 72-hour week. “They ‘reduced’ us to 66.4 hours, but then the county unilaterally reduced vacation time,” recalled Michael Bennett, then-president of Santa Barbara County Firefighters Local 2046. “They thought they were being cute but it set the stage for our firefighters to become very resentful.”
On June 2, 1975, 145 firefighters walked off the job. “At 0930, I announced on the radio that we were going on strike,” said Bennett, “and everybody walked out of the stations.”
Fire management personnel and Santa Barbara deputy sheriffs were ordered to staff the county fire stations. The deputies had only the scantest of training on fire equipment, and initially felt the same resentment that had been directed at state firefighters in previous walkouts.
As Sacramento had done before, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors preemptively requested the dispatch of CDF firefighters and state equipment to staff their fire stations. Only this time, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan getting the request: it was the new governor Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. Brown was much more sympathetic to organized labor than his predecessor. Unlike Reagan, Brown was not anxious to send his own employees into any community as strikebreakers, but he was also keenly aware of his responsibility to protect public safety.
As it had done years before in Sacramento, the Federated Fire Fighters of California moved to support its Santa Barbara affiliate. But there was also a new team at the helm at FFFC, headed by an ambitious young Modesto fire captain, Daniel A. Terry. Barely two years into his tenure, Terry had shifted the state association’s focus away from direct services and heavily into legislative and political action. A shrewd and showy display of support at FFFC’s 1974 convention in Goleta had gotten Brown’s attention on the campaign trail. Now, a year later, Dan Terry had the governor’s ear, and that of his energetic, ambitious chief of staff, Gray Davis.
“We told them that this thing was bad,” Terry recalled. “I said, ‘if you bring in strikebreakers, there could be violence.’ But they came back saying they had ‘an absolute obligation to protect the public.’ So we were kind of at loggerheads.”
Working for the first time in collaboration with a gubernatorial administration, Terry and Federated Fire Fighters’ Legislative Advocate Brian Hatch, sold Davis on a way out that would protect the solidarity of the union and the safety of the public. Instead of sending state personnel directly into fire stations, equipment and personnel under the auspices of the Governors Office of Emergency Services (OES) would be staged at the University of California, Santa Barbara and on state responsibility land in the center of the county. Nobody could question the presence of state firefighters to protect state assets.
For his part, Terry assured Brown that union members would step in, if needed in a critical response. Striking firefighters throughout the county monitored scanners and citizen’s band radios, acting as a “flying squad” ready to provide support: a true “strike team.”
The call went out only once during the walkout, as striking firefighters responded to an apartment fire in the community of Isla Vista. Twenty-nine striking firefighters turned up at the fire to assist, a godsend to the inexperienced sheriffs, some of whom had exhausted their breathing apparatus because they’d put it on at the station, rather than at the scene. “We went in with no safety gear and put out the fire,” recalled Bennett. “But we let them do the overhaul.”
“Brown took a drubbing in the press for not bringing in strikebreakers,” said Terry. “But he just kept saying ‘the public is being protected’ without saying how. That kept the pressure on the county to get a deal done.”
The support for Santa Barbara firefighters didn’t stop with the backchannel negotiations. Throughout the dispute, the county had claimed in the media that spending restrictions prevented them from allocating money to reduce the firefighters’ hours. On June 8, 1975, Gov. Brown signed legislation that added flexibility to state funding that had already been allocated.
Publicly, the department continued to hold a hard line, issuing an ultimatum that threatened termination of firefighters who didn’t show up for work by 8:00 a.m. June 10th. Behind the scenes, the outlines of a settlement were forming. At a union meeting in Buellton, attended by all but a handful of the 145 strikers, members voted to accept a modest 5% pay raise and phased-in implementation of the 56-hour week. Raises were postponed for three months and strikers were placed on probation. At 8:00 a.m. on June 10, firefighters – escorted by sympathetic (and, no doubt, relieved) sheriffs deputies – returned to the stations.
“It absolutely would not have been possible to succeed if Jerry Brown hadn’t held the line,” said Bennett. “The supervisors were counting on the state to be here. Without the state coming in, they couldn’t use that as a threat against us.”
In the end, the most durable result of the Santa Barbara strike was solidarity – between firefighters and within the union movement itself. State personnel were spared the odious duty of being ordered to cross the picket lines of their fellow firefighters. When firefighters went on strike later that year in San Francisco and Berkeley, the formula engineered by Davis and Terry, and Brown’s resolve in carrying it through, preserved public safety without pitting firefighter against firefighter.
“Nobody knew this was going on,” said Terry, “but it worked.”
The Santa Barbara County strike was also a watershed moment for the newly reborn organization that had secretly helped end it. During the first 35 years of its existence, Federated Fire Fighters of California had struggled for relevance in a landscape dominated by autocratic employers and dismissive public officials. In its formative years, FFFC scored some important victories, including one of the singular early successes of the public sector labor movement. More often, the group found itself in the trenches, helping with the hard work of organizing, supporting its affiliated locals when possible and creating strategic partnerships with others within the labor movement and the fire service.
Through its role in resolving the labor disputes of the mid-1970s, the state organization ceased to draw its power from its labor partners and became a power unto itself. In the decades that followed, Federated Fire Fighters of California and its affiliated locals would lead a transformation of the fire service and be at the forefront of a new era of strength for the public sector labor movement.
Much of that leadership would take place with a new name – one that reflected the progress both they, and their members, had made: California Professional Firefighters.