Unionizing Fire Departments
This subject has been discussed in these columns in the past, and the attitude of FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING in regard to it is already known, but as it is one that is absorbing no small amount of interest in all parts of the country, the following editorial opinion of the Birmingham, Ala., News is quite apropos:
“The last issue of the Labor Advocate contains on its first page under four-column headlines a signed statement from the Central Committee of the Birmingham Trades Council in reference to the discharge of several members of the fire department by Chief Bennett. It is quite severe in its strictures upon Chief Bennett and Commissioner Lane. This statement was offered to the Birmingham News for publication several days ago, and the request was declined on the ground that much of it in the form presented was not in proper temper and might be libelous. The offer was made to give it space if modifications were made, but nothing further was heard of it. The statement makes the specific charge that Cntei Bennett has discharged certain firemen on the ground oi incompetency, when the real cause was participation in the movement to unionize the fire department. It is insisted that the men had long been faithful and were competent. The statement also claims that organized labor has been given ‘a blow in the face by the city s officials, and that labor resents it, and will make its resentment felt. The statement asserts that Commissioner Fane had promised that no discharges would be made because of the union agitation. As to what are the facts as to the ground of Chief Bennett’s action, the News cannot speak with expert knowledge or certainty, He has always been a reputable man, and it is presumable that he has stated the truth as he sees it. I he fact that men have worked in the fire department live or 15 years is a strong presumption in their favor, it is true, but it is not a demonstration. Many a man is let out of his job, high or low, because time changes him and he becomes inefficient. If, however, any injustice has been done any one of the department’s employes, the city commission should search out the facts and right the wrong.
“As to the general issue involved, the question of unionizing the department, the statement contains an unnecessary amount of feeling. The desirability of that step is not a matter to grow emotional about; it is purely a matter of experience and sound judgment. The city commissioners cannot, and should not, look at it as n matter of sentiment or of politics. The public necessity for a capable force to be on duty to light fires every minute of every day in every month of the year is supreme, imperative, vital. If the commission’s investigation did not show that unionizing fire departments in some other cities had been advantageous and satisfactory, it was their duty to prevent the organization of a union here in every fair, legitimate way. And it is their duty to maintain that policy in the face of such intimations of political retribution as the statement under consideration contains. Of course, the danger from a unionized fire department is the possibility of a strike at any time. Unfortunately many branches of union lalior use (hat weapon of offense too frequently. It would be fatal to the efficiency of a tire department if its force could drop work as a matter of temper about a minor grievance or on a sympathetic call from some affiliated organization. It laws were enacted forcing arbitration between employes and employers, one or both of whom are frequently unreasonable or stuljborn, there could be no Strikes. That advance in government and civilization is bound to come in a few years in many of the States, perhaps in the national laws. And when it comes, the progress of ameliorating oppressive labor conditions will be much more rapid. The fear of the strike is the greatest obstacle to-day in labor’s progress, and she has put it in her own way. The News does not hesitate to say that it would be an unwise thing to unionize the fire department here under existing condemns. Public opinion does not demand it, and would not welcome it. The proposition seems to have been tried out only in a very limited way in a few cities, and it is not spreading rapidly. It is unreasonable to expect Birmingham to be a leader, a pioneer, in the undertaking. It should not he considered until there are arbitration laws. Its agitation at present is premature and unwise.