Fiery Struggle: Illinois Fire Fighters Build a Union, 1901-1985

By Barrett, James R. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Fiery Struggle: Illinois Fire Fighters Build a Union, 1901-1985


Barrett, James R., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Fiery Struggle: Illinois Fire Fighters Build a Union, 1901-1985. By Michael G. Matejka (Chicago: Illinois Labor History Society, 2002. Pp. 221. Index, illus. Paper, $20.00).

My grandfather has finally found his historian. He was a Chicago Fire Department engineer throughout the early twentieth century and helped to build one of the earliest fire fighters' unions in the World War I era and the 1920s. My late father's earliest memories were of being wheeled in his stroller through city streets as his mother distributed union literature at various firehouses. Raised in a staunch union neighborhood on the West Side, my grandfather wore only union made clothes and smoked only union manufactured cigarettes. A number of my uncles followed him into the trade, and I spent part of my youth sliding down poles in firehouses around the city.

While these highly skilled and heroic workers have certainly caught the public's attention, they have largely been ignored by labor historians. Given their critical importance, this is surprising. We have turned only slowly from the classic industrial to various public and service workers, and fire fighters' history remains largely undeveloped. Considered in this light, Mike Matejka's new popular history of Illinois fire fighters' unions takes on greater importance. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest organizations were built in Illinois' heavily unionized industrial cities, and one of Matjka's achievements is that he considers fire fighters as workers and not as a separate species of some sort. My grandfather was tough and brave, of course, but he was also a highly class-conscious worker.

Matejka traces this movement back to its earliest roots in the Knights of Labor and its expansion in Chicago, East St. Louis, Rock Island, and other cities as individual American Federation, of Labor "federal" unions in the World War I era and the 1920s. The heart of the book deals with the development of an umbrella organization, the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois (AFFI), from 1935 to the present, in a series of strikes that helped consolidate the organization's hold-Rockford (1968), Moline (1973), Evanston, DeKalb, and Canton (1974), Bloomington and Springfield (1976), Danville, West Frankfort, and Joliet (1977), Normal (1978), Burbank and Aurora (1979), and the bruising 1980 Chicago conflict. …

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