IAFF History: Tom Spellacy

Facebook Debates

If my local is any indicator the two hot topics of discussion these days are Resolution 10 on ethics and the vice president’s very hefty pay raise. The comments are fast and furious.

The other night a fellow said, in part,

I don’t care what size house the boss lives in, I’m thankful for what I have.  I just find it a little strange that in almost 100 years this is now a big issue. Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it. This [resolution 10] could change the way the union does business and it may not be in your best interest.”

My take was that he was saying corruption is business as usual in our union, so get over it.

That got me thinking, always a dangerous thing.

We have been here before.

President Spellacy

1st IAFF Convention

1st IAFF Convention

Part of our distant past is the relatively brief but important story of Thomas Spellacy of Schenectady, New York.  Schenectady is a bit north and west of Albany and was once part of the Erie Canal system, making it a one time economic juggernaut.

The Erie Canal connected the port of New York with the Great Lakes and forever changed America. New York pulled ahead of other port cities such as Philadelphia and Boston and never looked back.

Today the population of Schenectady is about 62,000; in 1920 when the IAFF was born it was 88,000; a major city of the day.

Erie Canal Celebration

Erie Canal Celebration

Schenectady was a charter IAFF local and George Richardson, the George Washington of the IAFF, or the closest thing we have to one, makes it clear that Spellacy wanted to be the first president. He won in a relative squeaker of an election.

Richardson also relates Spellacy’s apparent casual disinterest, feigned or not,  in the amount of the  president’s salary.

(I mention Richardson as “our George Washington” primarily because of his long service and impeccable reputation for probity and character. Ironically, he was Canadian.)

Two Sets of Books

Because Spellacy was in New York and Mike Smith, the secretary-treasurer was in Washington, D.C., they kept two checkbooks with each signing blank checks for the other.

This proved not a good idea as Spellacy was found to be engaging in dubious financial transactions with member’s dues.

They were most certainly related to reimbursement of expenses as early officers spent weeks on the (rail) road visiting and mediating in locals on strike or ready to go out on one.

The executive board voted to take action and indeed Spellacy was recalled by convention delegates for his unethical behavior.

My Facebook friend’s comments notwithstanding, the IAFF has been touched by corruption before at the highest levels.

It was dealt with swiftly at the time.

Local 94 Steps Up

ufa

There is an interesting back story worthy of mention.

As the second IAFF convention was getting underway on the west coast, word came via telegram that Spellacy and possibly others were attempting to organize a rival union in a meeting called in New York City.

Then as now, New York union firefighters were a powerhouse and there can be little doubt that the officers and  delegates were anxiously awaiting word of the outcome.

Local 94 refused to be a part of a break-away effort and their lack of support for Spellacy in the recall was a crucial moment for the IAFF.

In addition, over the years they have repeatedly led the way with the funding of public campaigns which resulted in the reduction of work hours and enhancements of pay and benefits for all firefighters.

In the early 20th century New York union firefighters spent amounts of money ($5,000  to $20,000) that no other local, and not even the IAFF, could have provided to move the firefighter union movement forward.

Their early significance is lost in the shroud of history.

The Spellacy Legacy?

In our infancy we were touched by scandal and unethical behavior.

The board and the convention delegates were up to the task of dealing with the matter and setting us on a firm course for the future.

The question is, are we still up to it?

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7 Comments

  • Kevin Saxton says:

    Hi Eric
    Thank you for the essay, very interesting and thought provoking . You speak of Richardson and in the end you state”ironically he was Canadian”. Can you clarify for me why that is ironic.
    Thanks
    Kevin

    • Eric Lamar says:

      K-

      That the IAFF’s “George Washington” is, in fact, not a US citizen but rather, Canadian.

      Though of course, Washington was also a loyal British subject in his early life.

      I don’t think Richardson would be happy with the current ethical environment at the IAFF.

      So, it’s also ironic that all three Canadian DVPs voted to table the ethics review.

      Historically, Canada has taken a leading role in labor rights; here they clearly have taken a back seat.

      Thanks for reading.

      Eric

  • Robert Davis says:

    One should strive to live their life with good ethic’s to help guide them. By doing so also set’s good examples for others to follow. It’s not so much what one has in life because you can’t take it with you as to what one leaves behind for others to follow and remember them by. Let’s not become our parents or leaders mistakes but to strive to live an honest life with good ethic’s so one will have little or no regrets when their last day arrives. With all the corruption, the love of money and power that has and still is taking place in our Country, I thank God we only have to answer for ourselves on Judgement Day. It’s never too late for anyone to change their life around to include good ethics and set good examples for others to follow. It’s your life, your choice. I suggest to choose wisely and not wait till the last minute for no one know’s when that time will take place.

  • Ed says:

    Eric,
    As we say in Carolina Panther country, “Keep Pounding”!
    Ed Duffield
    Retired Local President
    IAFF 682

  • Karrie Leigh Boswell says:

    I have heard it said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think that is true. Whenever a women or a man finds themselves in a place of extreme power and influence only the most courageous can remain true to who they are and the cause they serve. I am reminded of a sports analogy. Often times I see MLB players who become so caught up in the endorsements, the money, the media and the fame. They lose that little 8 year old boy who wanted nothing more then to throw a ball and swing a bat from sun up until sun down. I am a very smart women, my mom and dad told me so. Sometimes I do dumb things or come up with dumb ideas. The best friends and advisers I have tell me, “that is a dumb idea” or “that was a dumb thing you did”. I learned that in my potty training from two great union affiliated parents. The advantage of surrounding yourself with bootlicking yes people is you can persue your desires unchecked. The inheriant danger with surrounding yourself with bootlicking yes people is you can persue your desires unchecked. Yes men always keep their mouth shut because they have no greater understanding of a cause or the power of their convictions. They are instead riding someone else’s wave until the next rung on their personal ladder appears. Yes men will always take the shot at who stands between them and what they want. They will walk you right off the plank. They will tell you your bad ideas are good ones. Having a written ethics policy is a good idea. Giving an offensively large pay raise to DVPs is a bad idea. Not one union president in this country or Canada would support a grossly large pay raise for senior managers when the rank and file was getting nothing. I am a topped out lieutenant I was not affected as significantly as others in my department by pay freezes occurring back to 2007. To ask our members to bear the financial burden of a dues increase when they themselves are still suffering is ludicrous. There may be a case to be made that a new job description and corresponding salary increase is in order to better serve the members but 62% all at once at this time is not smart. It is a decision made in the absence of the reality of what IAFF members are dealing with. I got involved with Local 2068 because my then union president inspired me to make a difference. I pursued involment with the IAFF because our GP inspired me to be better. Alot of people across that bridge need to stop and think what made them persue activism in the union. They need to reflect about the MLB analogy. Are they being driven by a commitment to a cause and the power if their convictions or something more sinister. I was a delegate at the 2014 VPFF convention. We past a unanimous motion to oppose the pay raise. I stood and spoke against it for all the reasons I’ve stated. The GP home state said no. Every union president and every executive board member and every rank and file never said no. Listen to the rank and file and you will be on the right side of this particular debate. I love the IAFF I believe in our GP but we need a reality check and to police ourselves. I’m not a grammatical expert but you get my point.

  • David B Foreman says:

    Speaking of power I remember Harold speaking to someone at an AFL-CIO winter meeting. He was talking about the power of the general president, this is when he was gearing up to run. He said “The power is intoxicating”. I think he has been intoxicated on his power since being elected. I hope that some day this intoxication will wear off. He might then begin using it to benefit the members instead of abusing them.

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