White firefighters battle city’s promotion policy

Lt. Albert Braggs was one of two black firefighters seeking election to the union board in 1990.

Chicago Reporter file photo

Lt. Albert Braggs was one of two black firefighters seeking election to the union board in 1990.

(Editor’s Note: Black firefighters are the latest group to call for the Justice Department to expand its civil rights probe beyond the Chicago Police Department. The African-American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago alleges racism in hiring, promotions, and discipline at the fire department. Namely, the group says the fire department union has failed to hold the city accountable for a 1980 settlement with the Justice Department stipulating that 30 percent of fire department personnel be black, and 15 percent be Hispanic.  The Reporter chronicled the fire department’s long struggle over race and hiring in a March 1990 report detailing legal actions taken by both black and white firefighters accusing the CFD of discrimination. We are republishing this story as it originally appeared in light of AAFPL’s new request that the Justice Department again become involved in addressing racism experienced by Chicago’s black firefighters.)

Conversation at a South Side fire station heated up when the topic turned to affirmative action. “White firemen are mad because blacks get extra points added to their tests, “declared a white lieutenant perched on the bumper of a fire truck. If it were not for department policies that favor minorities, he said, he would have had his silver lieutenant’s bars sooner.

The white officer did not get any sympathy from his black co-workers. “These white folks are mad because they won’t have as many jobs, “said the station’s captain, who is black. “What about all those years they were leaving us out, when the promotions were 100 percent white? Whites thought everything was fine and never said a word.”

Deafening alarm bells abruptly ended the hour-long debate; the firefighters raced to a South Side house fire and traffic accident.

That conversation may have ended, but the controversy over affirmative action in the fire department continues in ongoing legal battles that pit the white-run Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 against many of its black members and the City of Chicago.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Despite a 1980 court order to increase minority employment, the Chicago Fire Department remains largely white. In a city where minorities make up more than 60 percent of the population, they hold just 32 percent of the 2,711 firefighter jobs, department records show. In the department’s upper ranks, minority representation is even lower.

Minorities’ climb up the career ladder has been challenged by stiff union opposition to the department’s affirmative action policies.

Firemen seeking to advance must take oral and written exams which test their leadership abilities and their knowledge of firefighting techniques and department policies. Promotions usually are made on the basis of the test scores, but since 1980 the city has promoted dozens of minorities ahead of white officers who scored higher on the exams. The out-of-rank promotions were made in an attempt to meet the goals outlined in the 1980 court order, which required the department to boost its minority employment at all levels. The union in each of the past three years has filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of white members challenging these promotions.

“The union is committed to merit selection, “said Martin Holland, Local 2 president. ”And the city will face a lawsuit whenever it picks and chooses people for promotion out of rank order.”

White-run Union

The racial makeup of Local 2 is in many ways the same as it was when it was formed at the turn of the century. Although minority firefighters contribute about $340,000 in annual dues, policies for the 4,300-member union are set by an all-white executive board. Only five of the organization’s 86 stewards are minorities; rarely do more than a few African Americans or Latinos show up for union meetings.

Firemen who choose not to join Local 2 still must pay the union 75 percent of the normal dues, and they get no union benefits. Kublai Khan Muhammad Toure, chairman of the Concerned Black Firefighters League, which has about 50 members, said the lawsuits demonstrate the union’s disregard for minority firemen.

“They’re taking our money to support themselves against us, “he said. “Why should I support an organization that’s designed to frustrate me? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Holland, however, said minorities hurt themselves by not participating in union activities. “You can’t expect to have a voice or be involved unless you’re a fireman who’s working from within, “he said. “Unfortunately, blacks are not working from within.”

Albert Braggs, a black lieutenant who chairs the union’s grievance committee, said black firefighters who skip meetings lose their chance to be elected to key union posts. Candidates for union positions must attend at least six meetings the year before an election, said Braggs, one of two black firemen seeking election to the 13-member executive board this year.

Braggs said he became active in the union after he was fired by the fire department in 1983 and later rehired, with little help from the union.

“I decided to get involved with the union because I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through what I did, “he said. “In my opinion, the biggest problem facing black firemen is apathy. Most black firemen have a poor perception of the union. So they ignore the contract and are no-shows at union meetings.”

Hoping to improve its relationship with black members, the union convened two special meetings in February to discuss issues of particular concern to minorities, including the lawsuits. Braggs said he was encouraged by the large number of black firefighters at the meetings but disappointed because “nothing was resolved.”

Holland insists the union is working to ensure fair and equal treatment for all candidates seeking promotion. A labor union, he said, operates on the interest of all, not on the interest of a few.

“The Chicago Fire Department has become much more representative of the city’s population, “said Holland. “In the 1970s minorities made up only 5 percent of the fire department’s firefighter slots; now they’re well over 30 percent. Those slots tell me that a lot of work has been done.”

Union Challenges Promotions

But many minority gains in the fire department came because of the affirmative action policies that the union is protesting.

The 1980 consent decree came after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city in 1973, charging that the fire department’s hiring and promotion tests hindered minority advancement. While the case was slowly making its way through court, the city gave a new set of promotion tests, which brought another Justice Department suit.

In 1980, the city and Justice Department agreed to settle both cases. The consent decree required the department to make its workforce better reflect the racial composition of the city. An affirmative action provision in the labor contract signed in 1980 by both the city and Local 2 was even more specific: the city and the union agreed that 45 percent of fire department personnel in all ranks should be minorities.

In 1980, when the decree and contract were signed, less than 4 percent of the department’s top jobs were held by blacks or Hispanics, the Chicago Sun-Times reported then. Ten years later, the city is far from reaching the stated goal, particularly at the upper ranks. As of November 1989, blacks and Hispanics filled only 201, or 14 percent, of the 1,474 engineer, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief posts, fire department records show. Blacks and Hispanics held 98, or 18 percent, of the 549 other positions in the department, excluding firefighters.

Starting in 1980, the city began making sure minorities made up at least 20 percent of lieutenants and engineers promoted from the most recent eligibility list. This required some out-of-rank promotions, but was specifically required by the decree.

In 1985 and 1986, the city gave a new round of promotion tests. In August 1987, the city announced promotions for engineers: 39 whites and 17 minorities; eight of the minorities were promoted out-of-rank.

In October, captain promotions were made: 18 whites and five minorities, with only one minority promoted out-of-rank. Prior to 1987, minorities had been promoted to only 7 percent of the 167 open captain positions since 1980, according to statistics compiled by the l11inois Department of Human Rights ODHRJ.

The union filed suit, claiming that the out-of-rank promotions discriminated against the whites who had been passed over. Since the beginning of 1987, city attorneys said, 55 minorities have been promoted out-of-rank.

In 1988, the city took a different tack in increasing minority promotions for lieutenants. The lieutenant test was found to have a “severe adverse impact “on minority candidates, meaning that had the effect of screening out minorities at a significantly greater rate than whites.

Rather than promote candidates out of rank, the city “standardized “ the results, a complex method of adjusting scores to compensate for a test’s adverse impact.

Based on the eligibility list, 16 minorities and 19 whites were promoted to lieutenant rank. Between 1980 and 1987, minorities were promoted to only 16 percent of the 456 lieutenant posts, IDHR records show.

The union sued, charging that standardizing the test scores was unconstitutional because it discriminated against white candidates. City attorneys argued that if scores had not been standardized, the city could not honor the agreement in the consent decree or union contract and would be open to lawsuits from minorities, who could show that the test had an adverse impact upon blacks and Hispanics.

Last October, the city was sued again after it promoted four minorities to battalion chief posts ahead of whites who had scored higher on a test given in early 1989.

Holland said out-of-rank promotions and adjustments to the way exams are scored are unnecessary. The imbalance in the promotional ranks will be erased in time as minority applicants advance through the usual promotion process, he said.

But Morrison Torrey, a DePaul University law professor, said minorities should not be expected to patiently wait. “People of color have been hearing that all that’s needed is a little more time since 1865, “said Torrey, who teaches collective bargaining law. “The unions, if they are Sincere, need to propose constructive alternatives.”

Glenn Carr, commissioner of the city’s personnel department, predicts the fire department will reach its minority promotion goal within 10 years. As more minorities are brought in at the firefighter level, he said, they create a larger pool for advancement to lieutenant, captain and battalion chief.

Fire Chief Raymond Orozco refused The Chicago Reporter’s request for an interview or written responses to questions about his department’s affirmative action policies.

State Agency Defends Promotions

While the union’s lawsuits are pending in federal court, white firefighters suffered a setback last fall when the Illinois Department of Human Rights did not support discrimination complaints similar to those filed in court by the union. In its recommendation to the Illinois Human Rights Commission, which rules on such cases, IDHR argued that out-of-rank promotions were needed to correct the adverse impact of the promotional exams given before the 1980 court settlement order.

The department further noted that despite the city’s affirmative action policies, whites still are more likely to be promoted because there are more of them at the top of the current lieutenant’s eligibility list. Even after adjusting the scores to compensate for the adverse impact of the lieutenant’s exam, whites make up 71 percent of the top 300 candidates on the current promotion list, according to IDHR records; blacks are 22 percent, Hispanics, 7 percent.

These figures, IDHR concluded, “are not indicative of discrimination. “In fact, it concluded, “if points had not been added to the [minorities’] tests, there would have been a significant problem with discrimination against minorities.”

The commission, which rules on discrimination cases investigated by IDHR, requested that IDHR provide documentation of prior discrimination in the fire department. The complaint is on hold, pending the outcome of the union’s court cases.

Steven Greenberg, a law professor at DePaul, said recent court rulings have set the stage for whites to aggressively challenge affirmative action programs.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Richmond v. Croson, that affirmative action plans had to be based on specific past discrimination that could be documented. In another 1989 decision, the court ruled that white firefighters in Birmingham, Ala., could sue the department there even though the city is operating under a consent decree similar to Chicago.

But this January, minority firefighters in Miami won a round in the federal courts when a federal district judge refused to allow a consent decree to be modified. The white-run union in Miami had argued that the decree discriminated against whites. The union has appealed the ruling.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that affirmative action is a dead letter, “said Greenberg, who teaches employment discrimination law. “But I think you’ll see more and more reverse discrimination cases.”


Black firefighters complain of isolation

By Karen Snelling

Michael Danzy will never forget the silent treatment he received during his first three years with the Chicago Fire Department.

Hired in 1977, he and another fireman, assigned to a different shift, were the first two blacks to work at Engine Company 102, a firehouse on the city’s Far North Side.

“There were about 15 men on a shift and only one or two would talk to me,” said Danzy, now a lieutenant at a South Side station. “The others acted like they hated me.”

Danzy also recalled regularly hearing racist jokes and having his job-related questions ignored. He said the isolation from his white co-workers continued until 1980 when he was transferred to the South Side where there are more black firefighters.

Unfortunately, Danzy’s experience is not unique. Many minority firefighters in Chicago complain that they are the victims of on-the-job racism and disciplinary double standards.

Kublai Toure, chairman of the Concerned Black Firefighters League, an association of about 50 firemen, charged that drug testing is used to harass minorities.

“If a black driving a fire rig has a minor accident, he’ll be ordered to take a drug test,” said Toure. “But if a white has a serious accident, nothing happens.”

In 1988, the last year for which data are available, 24 of the 29 firefighters dismissed for drug or alcohol violations were black; four were white, one was Latino, city records show. Similarly, 17 of the 18 cadets dismissed from the fire academy for drug violations last fall were black; one was white.

Martin Holland, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, denies that the discharges, which usually are made by white officers, are racially motivated.

Strained relations between minority firefighters and the white-run union have heightened racial tensions in Chicago and other cities.

The Dec. 11 issue of The Nation magazine documented numerous acts of what it viewed as union-related harassment against minorities in several cities.

In Miami, for example, all 62 black firefighters were expelled from the local union there in 1988 because they were active in an association of black firefighters, a primarily civic organization which the union contended was a rival union.

And in 1987, the editors of the union newsletter in San Francisco were caught deleting images of blacks from photos of meritorious firefighters.

In Chicago, racial tensions in the firehouses are heightened because blacks and whites “really don’t know each other,” Holland said. “When the work shift is over, they go back to their respective neighborhoods.”

“The rift between black and white firemen is the same rift you see in the city. No one can create friends, but you can avoid pandering to the rifts.”