Every Fire Department has a history, but in order to secure an evolving past there must be a future. Our Union, Local 717, International Association of Fire Fighters, A.F.L.-C.I.O. has secured our future in the fire service.All Labor unions have a story to tell. Each is unique and full of fights and struggles. However we could not have endured without a strong and loyal membership, including Brothers and Sisters in the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois. Our Local is indebted to our Unions Brothers and Sisters who have sacrificed so much to secure our future, and we hope to repay them by battling to keep the rights already won and to fight for the Fire Fighters labor movement of the future.
“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. ‘But notwithstanding all of these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as the setting of the sun.”
Brothers and Sisters here is our Labor story. Our Union Brothers Richard Gorski, Ted Kolin, and Larry Moravecek secured our first signed contract in 1983. This was a task of monumental proportions and it has and always will be the first step on the stairway we are ascending. Great resistance was encountered but our Brothers stood strong and did not waiver in their fight for our rights. They were intimidated, threatened, punished, and yelled at on too many occasions to mention. “You guys will never see a signed contract”, was yelled time after time. However our Brotherhood prevailed and we are still enjoying many of the benefits of our first contractual agreement.
Another great Union leader began to arise in the early 90’s, Ray Andel (President Emeritus). Every Fire Fighter in the Town of Cicero is in debt to Mr. Andel not just for the rights he has secured for us, but because he saved the Fire Fighting profession on more than one occasion. Ray endured numerous death threats and attacks both professionally and personally. But Brother Andel always battled and never gave up in the fight for the very existence of Local 717 and its rights. Many brothers assisted Brother Ray but two early allies in his fight were Michael J. Perry and Jack Vogel. Andel also enlisted attorney Dale Berry and Union representative Mike Lass. This group proved to be a formidable team.
In 1991 Brother Andel and his team established our contractual grievance procedures (we still use this procedure today). This procedure proved to be an indispensable tool to exercise our contractual rights. Also in the 1991 contract Ray established the Fair Share payments to the Local. Fair Share ensured the financial well being of the Local by requiring all bargaining unit employees to pay the local financial dues even if they choose not to belong. Both of these issues were paramount in running an effective Union.
Union Brother Gary Gonzalez (Contract Enforcement Emeritus) joined Brother Ray and his team in their battles in 1993. Gonzalez was a different kind of warrior: brass, bold, determined and unrelenting on every subject but Gary was the perfect compliment to Ray’s calm easy going demeanor. Brother Gary’s life was also threatened on many occasions however it isn’t in his nature to back down. But just when they led others to accept these personality traits they would suddenly reverse their roles. Brother Gary and Ray were the perfect team to battle the unforeseeable danger that lurked around the corner for Local 717.
1993 also brought about a Grievance to obtain the scores of Fire Fighters Promotional exams (this Grievance eventually brought about fair promotional testing for all members of the local instead of the clout driven system that was in place). The 54-hour workweek (Fair Labor Standards Act) and the current Kelly day system were also put into effect in 1993. After several Union victories the Town decided to illegally put the firefighters on a night watch program to teach them a lesson. This was very dangerous to the public safety and fire fighter safety especially with the lack of manpower Cicero had. 717 members filed their first Unfair Labor Practice. After about a year of this night watches, a Union Busting tactic, the Town rescinded the night watches and settled the Unfair Labor Practice. This was also a first in Cicero.
1994 was a very tumultuous year for members of Local 717. The new Town President Betty Loren Maltese proposed the elimination of the Fire Department in favor of a Public Safety Program. Fire Fighters were to be eliminated and Police Officers were to be cross-trained in Fire Fighting. The Police were to patrol on their regular beats and when a fire occurred they were to respond in their patrol cars, park, put on fire gear and extinguish the fire. The Union voraciously fought this PSO program with Andel and Gonzalez leading the charge. After years of fighting Local 717 defeated this threat to the public and their beloved profession- Firefighting (on 1-06-06 Illinois House Bill 1368 officially banned PSO programs in the state of Illinois).
Late in 1994 the stoic Union Board negotiated a very strong contract. In this contact they were able to obtain a minimum manpower clause. This clause halted the steady decline in manpower that had been occurring for over 140 years.
“Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those—regardless of their political party—who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to the days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Workers Compensation Rights were taken away from us in the 1995. The Town did not inform or bargain this change in working conditions with the Union. Executive Board members and Dale Berry fought this illegal change in working conditions and won our rights back.
Cicero Firefighters Local 717 began their fight against the town’s residency rule in 1995. The Local had a long battle on there hands. Many strong Union Brothers flexed the Local’s Union muscle in the upcoming years: Mark Steinhagen, Rick Moravecek, Eric Pagni, John Miller, Dan Accardo, Ed Krisciukas, and Brian Kulaga to name a few. November 26th 1999 after a lengthy arbitration Local 717 won its residency argument and was given permission to move out of Town. Then on October 5th 2001 after a lengthy court case the town persuaded a Cook County Circuit Court Judge to reverse the Arbitrators decision. The Local appealed to the First District Appellate Court and on March 3rd 2003 the Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court decision in favor of the Arbitrators ruling. Cicero appealed to the Supreme Court, however on October 14th, 2004 the Court refused to hear the case agreeing with the Appellate Court and the Arbitrator. Prior to this date many I.A.F.F. Locals used Cicero’s Arbitration settlement and were allowed to move out of their municipalities.
During the April of 1997 election for the Presidency many Union Brothers choose to exercise their constitutional rights and decided to participate in the election and campaigned for a change in Town Government. Unfortunately, their campaign failed and Betty Loren Maltese was again elected Town President. Several members of the local were investigated for distributing literature. In November of 1999 Union Brother’s Mark Steinhagen and Dan Accardo were suspended from their jobs, without pay. Steinhagen, long time Union Board member, and Dan Accardo, strong Union advocate, were devastated both personally and professionally. Local 717 rallied behind their members and used every avenue at their disposal to try to restore their integrity, unfortunately years passed without vindication. A new Union Board member emerged during this difficult time, Eric Habercoss. He quickly learned under the tutelage of Andel and Gonzalez. Habercoss tried to emulate all of the great Union leaders who had served before him.
On 1-22-01 after the Town exhausted every possible legal avenue to keep Union Brothers Accardo and Steinhagen from perusing their profession (Arbitration, Circuit Court, Appellate Court) the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and ordered them back to work. Even though Mark and Dan had been ordered back to work it wasn’t until Mid February and another Circuit Court Judges order that compelled them back to work.
Another Unfair Labor practice was filed in 2000. The Town was refusing to bargain in good faith for a new contractual agreement. Also, after a visit to the Fire Department by the Illinois Department of Labor’s Industrial Commission concerning poor working conditions, the Fire Marshal decided to eliminate most of the privileges enjoyed by the Fire Fighters (weights and physical fitness, personal projects, car washing, ect. ect.). Fire Department management launched an anti union campaign against the fire fighters. Local 717 and its strong members were ridiculed and insulted for participating in their protected union rights. Strong union members were transferred out of houses they had worked in for years previously. Fire companies who had worked together for years were split up arbitrarily.
Private paramedics were given offices, private sleeping quarters and unmerited protection by the Fire Marshal. Rules and Regulations that Fire Fighters had to obey did not exist for the Private Paramedics (day changes, hour changes, residency, and professionalism on calls). 717 members were told: “you guys are pricing yourselves out of a job”, “the union has too many rights,” we wish we could fire all you union guys and hire all privates” ect. ect. The Local continued to remain determined and unified. Over a dozen Union Fire Fighters testified before the Illinois Labor Board about managements anti -union activities and behavior. After the Town Attorneys heard the case before them they rushed to settle before a decision was rendered. The Union won back all the rights that had been taken away, in writing.
2001 was also a very difficult year for the members of Local 717. On the first meeting of contract negotiations they were told by attorneys representing the Town that they were going to be put on 8-hour days and privatized. Local 717 representatives were told Union Firefighters were costing the Town too much money (a classic anti-union management claim heard by every union board). The Union Board was shocked and outraged as was new Union Board Secretary Greg Fithian. Fithian who was smart, savvy, and racked with management experience from the private sector was a perfect fit for the Union Board. Andel, Gonzalez, Habercoss, and Fithian launched the Union and its members into a complex plan to spoil this threat to the Firefighting profession.
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is the only fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
The Executive board launched a massive public relations and media campaign. The I.A.F.F. and A.F.F.I. were contacted and a game plan was formalized. Attorney Dale Berry was again consulted (as he had been on almost all of the issues the Union had argued in the past). Local 717 decided as a whole that it had to enter the political arena to try to buck the incumbent in order to survive. The main issues the Union Firefighters attempted to make public was the grave danger the citizens were in if the Fire Department was eliminated or privatized. Also, Local 717 informed the public that Betty Loren Maltese had defrauded the taxpayers out of millions of dollars in an insurance scheme (convicted in August 2002 of defrauding the taxpayers for over 10 million dollars). 99% of the local actively campaigned against the incumbent producing literature and going door-to-door attempting to notify the public of the threat to public safety that loomed. Dozens of other Illinois Locals helped going door to door with Cicero Firefighter (Local 717 will always be indebt to its Union Brothers and Sisters for their help in this time of need).
Numerous newspaper articles were also published in the area newspapers informing the public of the impeding danger. Unfortunately, the administration also published many articles slamming our brave and loyal profession. Even the private ambulance company that serves the Town insulted and ridiculed our profession in the local newspapers. At this time the Union informed the public that a few of the private medics had felony convictions. But the local kept its dignity and professionalism through it all by stating in print and orally “ We don’t care if your Republican, Democrat, or Independent, if you’re white, black, hispanic, asian, or any other race. When you call us we will come without regard to our own safety or the well being of our own families, we will be there when you need us.”
Things got increasingly more dangerous for the Local and their supporters. Members of the Local were threatened on numerous occasions. Other Local from the state were openly threatened in the streets while assisting the Cicero Local in its endeavors. 717 members had their car tires cut, windshields shattered, and cars keyed. Union Vice President Eric Habercoss’s wife and one year old daughter were threatened while he was out working and she was home alone. The F.B.I., State Police, and States Attorney Office were notified. The A.F.F.I. under the leadership of Dave Forman and Ed Crews arranged a March On Cicero Town Hall. Hundreds of Union Firefighters from all over the state participated in the March. It was an awesome show of force for State of Illinois Union Firefighters.
Dave Lencioni, a strong member of the local, was next on the Lieutenants list in 2001. Dave became active in the political campaign. Because of his involvement, he was not promoted to his rightful spot even though there was an opening. The Local filed a Grievance and fought for almost two years until they once again prevailed and won a Lieutenants spot for Brother Dave.
Cicero Local 717 had become a political force to be reckoned with. We were organized, well funded, educated, and most of all motivated. Day after day firefighters pounded the pavement in support of their beliefs. Instead of sitting back and accepting their apparent fate (the loss of their jobs) they took destiny into their own hands, fought back and made people listen. 717 members were threatened, harassed, and ridiculed but they never backed down.
Unfortunately, the election did not turn out as the local had hoped for, the incumbent Betty Loren Maltese was reelected in 2001. But Local 717 was still united and determined, they remained strong, and continued to fight for their rights and a contract (the contract had expired in 2000). In August of 2002 Maltese was convicted on the same charges IAFF Local 717 members had informed the public of in the 2001 campaign.
In 2002 the Union Executive Board had a different make up. After more than a decade of running Local 717 Ray Andel handed over the reins to his hand picked successor Eric Habercoss. However, as Habercoss has stated on many occasions, “ Ray Andel is and will always be the Greatest Union President this Local had or ever will have. I cannot fill Ray’s shoes, no one can. That is an impossible task. All I can do is try to carry on his legacy, to try to take over where he left off. The Union is as strong as it is because of Ray.”
Gary Gonzalez also decided to take a much-deserved break from the Union Board. Gary, like Ray, is also an irreplaceable fixture of Local 717. Gonzalez, always strong, always motivated, and always fighting for the contract, became a template, a role model for all those who served in the Contract Enforcement Officer role. As Richard Gorski stated at Ray Andel’s retirement party, “Gary is pound for pound the best battler in the business.”
“Trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men.”
With a new Town Government in place Eric Habercoss and Mark Steinhagen sat down with the new Town President and negotiated a four-year contractual agreement, with generous raises and retirement health care at half price for Fire Fighters. Other influential and strong members of this new board were Chad Harvey and Greg Fithian.
William Austin joined the Union Board in 2004. Austin was bold, confident, and determined in the pursuit of Union Rights (just as his father had been when he served as Vice President with the Bolingbrook Local 3005 Union). Bill Austin was cut from the same cloth as Gary Gonzalez and they both shared the same enthusiasm on Union issues. In 2004 Local 717 made another bold move to fortify itself and its rights. The paramedic services of the Fire Department have been privatized since the early eighties. Fire Department Management has shown the private service preferential treatment for many years. Many Lieutenants and Fire Fighters (many whom were E.M.T.’s or Paramedics) wrote incident reports about the poor treatment and quality of care patients were receiving.
When the Union argued for better care for the patients the Marshal told the Union to “mind its own business” and to “worry about the fire side not the medic side of the department”. When one of the Union Firefighters (who was also a paramedic) questioned the Marshal on the lack of latex gloves in the handling of a bloody patient, by a private medic, he was told by the Marshal that “he wasn’t as good as a pimple on private medics ***.” In October of 2004 another argument insured between the Union and Fire Management about poor patient car. At the end of the argument the Marshal stated that “the medics and the Fire Fighters should be separate, they should have nothing to do with one another, ever.” Union Board members asked if that is what he wanted, and the Marshal stated, “yes.” Within three shift days the Fire Fighters did what the Marshal had told them to separate. They no longer ate meals with the private medics and most only socialized about department related issues. Fire Management was infuriated and the Union was threatened (as usual).
In 2005 under New Fire Department Management our contract was violated dozens of times. The rights we have fought for, won, or negotiated for are being eroded on a daily basis. The year brought about 16 grievances and another unfair labor practice. Most of the contractual violations are violations we have already fought and won or are clear in the contract. Union officers are still being discriminated against. Union President Eric Habercoss was transferred to another shift (again) arbitrarily. Union Secretary Bill Austin was locked out of work for 9, 8-hour days for arguing a contractual issue and he was told he could no longer argue the contractual issues and “the union has no ******* rights”. There is also another grievance and Unfair Labor practice pending in 2006. We would give more details but these issues are still pending.
This is not the ending of this story, it is only the beginning. Local 717 IAFF has just begun to fight. We will prevail as we always have and we hope to secure even more Union Rights for our Union Brothers and Sisters in Illinois and the rest of America.
Thank you for reading our story and check back often for updates. Local 717 is always interested in assisting other Locals. You can contact us via the Executive Board link.
“We have come too far- struggled too long- sacrificed too much and have too much left to do- to all that which we have achieved for the good of all to be swept away without a fight. And we have not forgotten how to fight.” Lane Kirkland