Chicago firefighters are still battling the fallout from the infamous firehouse videotape, rightfully insisting they're not all like the redneck hooligans filmed drinking and telling racist jokes seven years ago. So why did a nearly all-white pack of firefighters think it was a good idea to fill the City Council chambers last Wednesday and act like a bunch of redneck hooligans during the debate over their new contract? Maybe they're getting public relations advice from the World Wrestling Federation.
The contract is as controversial as the video. In fact, black fire captain Ezra McCann released the video just before the council's Police and Fire Committee voted on the contract last month, and it's widely believed the timing was meant to scuttle it. Black firefighters oppose the contract, claiming they weren't represented in negotiations since there are no blacks on the union's governing board. And no one's happy with the contract's call for 10 percent of promotions to be based on merit. Whites don't want any merit promotions, and McCann has said blacks want minorities to account for 75 percent of new hires.
But whites supported the contract, and the white firefighters were at the council meeting to see it approved. Yet when Alderman Edward Burke opened the debate with a veritable valentine to the firefighters, the applause was spiked with hoots and catcalls.
"Hurry up before ya get indicted!" was one of the more audible comments, referring to the simultaneous investigations of Burke's private law practice by a federal grand jury, the state's attorney's office, and the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Burke smirked and advised the firefighters to "reserve their expressions of support or opposition...since it does little to advance their cause." They didn't take his advice.
Alderman William Beavers, chairman of the Police and Fire Committee, closed the debate in his usual frank style, stunning his audience by saying things into a microphone that most politicians wouldn't whisper in the vacuum of space.
Beavers, who's black, started out attacking the black firefighters' complaints that the union's governing board is all white. "Well lemme tell you, in the Sixth District, which is the majority black district, they had an opportunity to elect a black to the governing board. But instead they chose to elect a white retired firefighter for their representation," he said. "I been the [committee] chairman over ten years. For ten years I been tellin' [the black firefighters] to sue [the firefighters' union]. The NAACP offered 'em a free attorney. Just come up with some money for a filin' fee. They couldn't do that," he scoffed. "Number one, they're not doin' nothin' for themselves. And how do you expect me to fight for you when you're not doin' nothin' for yourselves?"
Then Beavers let everybody else have it. Aldermen who didn't vote for the contract "don't understand what they're votin' for," he said, adding, "I could talk about as many bad things about the fire department as Alderman Burke talked about as good." He recalled seeing a fire truck run over a woman in 1967 because the rear driver was back at the firehouse, drunk.
"But it's not about that," Beavers continued. "It's about a contract that we're negotiatin' and tryin' to get the best deal for not only blacks but Hispanics and whites, who I don't care how white you are, were gon' never get promoted because you don't have the right last name and don't live in the right place....Now you have the white firefighters who are mad because of 10 percent [merit promotions]. Black folks are not takin' your jobs. Hispanics are not takin' your jobs. You weren't gonna get 'em no way."
The contract passed, 37-8.
Alderman Ray Frias attended his first meeting since being acquitted of accepting a bribe, attempted extortion, and lying to the FBI in the federal Silver Shovel probe. Frias's entrapment defense required him to admit taking a $500 bribe from an undercover FBI agent, and a videotape showed a government mole asking Frias why he'd become a state legislator. "Mmmm, making money," he answered.
Frias's colleagues demonstrated a remarkable ability to forgive. Among the aldermen who stopped by Frias's seat to chat, laugh, and sometimes shake his hand were Thomas Allen, Shirley Coleman, Vilma Colom, and Jesse Granato. Newly appointed alderman James Balcer, who sits next to Frias, talked to him off and on for the whole meeting. Alderman Terry Gabinski enjoyed a chuckle with Frias in the council's outer chamber. So did Mayor Daley. Cum tacent clamant.