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 donâ€™t care what size house the boss lives in, Iâ€™m thankful for what I have. Â 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.
Part of our distant past is the relatively brief but important story of Thomas Spellacy of Schenectady, New York. Â 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.
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, Â in the amount of the Â 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
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 Â 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 Â 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?