1976 Strike


We remember members of Local 37 who went out on strike 11/11/1976 in an effort to establish a contract with the City of Springfield. We especially remember Rex McCawley, Tom Blough, Larry Schafer, and Steve Stadtman who were jailed for their efforts. Here is an excerpt from "Fiery Struggle", which documents the history of firefighters and the organized labor movement in Illinois. 



The next group out was Springfield Local 37, who walked off the job on Nov. 11, 1976, after months of prolonged negotiations. The Springfield fire fighters were asking for a "negotiating document" with the Council, in other words, a contract, with a 3.5 percent wage increase and further increases in later years. Springfield, which had a Commission form of government at the time, had a Health and Safety Commissioner who would bring the fire fighters’ demands to the Council but refused to endorse them. The fire fighters also asked the city to agree to a fireman’s arbitration board, which was allowed under state law. These boards were non-binding, but the City refused this.

?On Saturday, Oct. 16, 1976, Springfield fire fighters voted to strike 139-6. One of the sticking points in Springfield was the Commission form of government; the fire fighters wanted assurances that if they negotiated an agreement with the Health and Safety Commissioner the rest of the Commissioners would agree; the other commissioners refused that assurance. The fire fighters got seven other Springfield city unions to join their demand for a binding contract with the City, including the Electrical Workers (193), Operating Engineers (965), Stationary Engineers (7), Firemen & Oilers (19), Teamsters (916) and the Police Benevolent (5).

In early November the fire fighters reached a contract with Commissioner Pat Ward and ratified that contract. The City Council then rejected the "negotiating document," instead offering a 6% wage increase. The fire fighters rejected the city’s offer and began their strike at 5:30 a.m. on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1976. All other city employees, including the city power plant workers, honored their picket lines, except for the police. By noon that day the city had obtained a temporary restraining order, which the fire fighters ignored. On Sunday, Nov. 14, the city’s four man bargaining team was sentenced to 30-days in jail for contempt of court and the union fined $5,000 daily. The Illinois State Police bolstered their forces in Springfield and an Illinois National Guard unit was pulled from Bloomington to Springfield, ready for stand-by duty. 500 people rallied on Sunday, Nov. 14, as the four union officers appeared at the jail and turned themselves in. The night before 10 striking fire fighters had joined city supervisory personnel and helped fight a house fire. The local union continued to do this throughout the strike.

By Tuesday the fire fighters and the City were talking. On Wednesday a rally was held outside the State Capitol with fire fighters from 16 cities attending.

Thursday evening an agreement was announced; you couldn’t really call it a contract, as it was not adopted as a city ordinance. Rather, a majority of the City commissioners and the Mayor signed a "letter of intent" with the fire fighters. The city agreed to amnesty for the strikers, a 6 percent retroactive wage increase and an extra vacation day; plus the city agreed to submit all other questions to binding arbitration. Lass and Berry and some fire fighters were not happy with the agreement, as it was not a contract. But a majority of the Local’s members voted to accept it.

You can’t exactly call the Springfield strike a complete victory, as they did not win a signed contract with the City. But it was an important precedent, as it laid down the ingredients that Mike Lass would bring to the upcoming Illinois strikes.

These ingredients included no backing down on threats of jailing and preparing union leadership that they might possibly be jailed; public actions, pickets and outreach to other unions and community groups; and most importantly, a tactical decision to continue to fight fires. Some unions criticized the fire fighters for this, but it was an important element in successful job actions -- the union could claim they were not on strike against the citizens, since they still protected them -- rather, they were on strike against city governments.

This "public relations strike" was important because it gave power to the fire fighters. Although on strike, they still controlled a portion of job actions. They could at least win sympathy from a sizable portion of the population, and finally, it allowed fire fighters to take a united job action and still feel they were upholding their moral obligation to protect life and property. This was important psychologically, and it was also important because it gave striking fire fighters a valuable task to perform while striking, which helped build unity.



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