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The Sun Detroit's Black Firefighters

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A resident talks with a Detroit firefighter about a sign posted near the engine house. It reads: "This Firehouse Will Be Closed Down For Good on March 23. Warning: For the Safety of You and Your Family, Do Not Have A Fire. We Will Not Be Here." The protest against recent city layoffs was removed immediately after this photo was _ ■ ■ i ■ ■ ■ v ■ ■ taken. Detroit's firefighters have been the tor cus of controversy since January 21 , when the City and the Fire Department issued an "affirmative action" order promoting 36 minority firefighters to officers' positions. To compénsate for years of hiring discrimination, resulting in there being only three minority officers out of over 400 in the Department, the black and Latino firefighters were promoted ahead of a large number of white officers who otherwise would have qualified through the Department's strict seniority system. 114 other whites received promotions as expected. Six days later, the white-dominated Detroit Fire Fighters' Association, led by Earl ]. Berry, filed suit in federal court charging the promotions constituted "reverse discrimination" against whites and a threat to the seniority system. Tom Turner, President of Detroit AFL-CIO, threw his support behind the white firefighters. And on February 10, U.S. District )udge james P. Churchill agreed, dissolving the promotions of the minority officers. The City mmediately announced ts intention to appeai the surprising decisión, which, if allowed to stand, could constitute a threat to other affirmative action programs in Detroit and elsewherewhose purpose has become more urgent as Detroit has become a black majority city. The most active and effective forcé in pushing for speedy promotion of more blacks to officers' positions in the Fire Department has been the little-known Phoenix, the black firefighters' organization. Last week SUN Editor Derek Van Pelt talked with some 1 5 members of Phoenix, including President Napoleon Howard and Joseph Burrell, now the pnly black officer in the Detroit Fire Department, before a Phoenix board meeting at Howard 's home. Several of the firefighters present had had their promotions taken back, and some had been recently laid off due to the city's budget crisis. They talked not oniy aoout attirmative action and seniority, but about historicaily widespread white racism n the Fire Department intensifying to a dangerous degree. They told of snubs and disrespect n the engine houses and at fires, of the union's leadership in encouraging whites to ignore the promotions. They talked of dogs trained to be hostile to blacks kept by whites at engine houses, of "out of order" signs suddenly appearing on enginehouse toilets when black citizens asked to use them. The Phoenix members painted a disturbing picture of the white firefighter: a 1 0 or 1 5-year veteran, perhaps an officer, possibly living outside the city in violation of the residency rule, typically a southern emigre without a high school education, his racist attitudes encouraged and exploited by union leadership. Many of these firefighters, they charge, have little stake in putting out fires or saving lives in the inner city. . Their characterization of the firefighters' union, Local 344, was no less upsetting: a white-run organization operated for the benefit of its older members, obsessed with money and unconcerned with service, an organization which refused to spend federal funds for minority training and refused to support black political candidates, even those who had supported the firefighters. The union may even be encouraging a work slowdown in retaliation for recent layoffs. Facing harassment and scorn daily on an already pressure-laden and hazardous job, the black firefighter may feel he can turn neither to the union nor the courts for redress of his grievances. The white firefighter refuses to bend, and feels encouraged by the Churchill decisión to continue his racist behavior. It all adds up, in the words of Phoenix member Terry Barker, to a "powder keg" that could soon explode n open physical confrontation between white and black firefighters. In the February issue of Detroit Fire Fighters, the union magazine, which was devoted mainly to the Churchill decisión and praise of t (no criticism was printed), 4th Batallion Director Leo Stevens wrote, "We are engaged in a War where all stops must be pulled f necessary." SUN: Some of you were promoted under "affirmative act ion, " but then had to give up your positions when the court overturned the promotions. How were you treuted in the interim.'' Richard Martin: At the point where 1 was made Sergeant, this is where a lot of hostilities started to brew. In my own engine house, for example, an engine operator, at this point, ust stopped talking to me period. He had given his views, and those of a lot of the other white firefighters, that this was a bad thing-that white firefighters were going to stop fighting fires, they were not going to cooperate with the recently promoted black firefighter sergeants and other officers. As a sergeant, I got no cooperation whatsoever. It is an unwritten policy where other firefighters help the officers with their bookwork and associated tasks. Well, I got no cooperation whatsoever, I had to do everything on my own. My title was never recognized by the members in the engine house. I was nevcr called "Sergeant." Clarence Tobías: The fact is that it's . a universal attitude ihroughout the _ F re Department. See, the problem is that, through the years, the Pólice Departments and the Fire Departments have traditionally bullied the City administraron. Through negotiation, the City has bargained away all of its control over the firefighters, so they're operating from a stranglehold position. Secondly, supervisión is generally synonymous with management. Once you become a supervisor of men, you generally transfer to the management side, since that s the side whose views you should be representing. In the Fire Department, the supervisors are actually a part of the same labor unión as the guys who they are posedly supervising. And once they obtain the rank of officer, they still have another stranglehold, in that the City cannotask them to retire, more or less, until they have 25 years. So if a fireman has a complaint against his supervisor, he has no recourse but to go to the union, in which the supervisor has been a member of much longer standing than himself. They cali him and say, "What are you complaining against Captain So-and-So? Here you & got three years on the job and he's got 25, he's been paying dues 25 years and you've been paying dues three years." Now, whose views are they going to represent? Traditionally, they have always dumped the young guys n this Department. The older guys erróse to take the pay raise and accept the layoffs and now t seems nconceivable to them that they can continue to lay off men, you understand, because it's impairing fire fighting abilitics. But you can't have it both ways-they want the money and the men, when they clearly had a choice. So while they 're saying that the black firefighters are doing things to hurt their unión brothers by accepting these positions which they say we don't deserve, they continue to hurt the younger brothers by voting them out of a job and are willing to further their own selfish gains by taking the money. But yet they're complaining now because their workload is ncreasing, and the City, being strapped, has to oon-, tinue to lay off men. So t's justa & paradox, n that the Fire Department's union cannot justify any position that they have other than the position of greed. They say t's totally unfair to the membership for a guy to take position, out of seniority. Well, t's only unfair to the white guys, who have all the obs anyways And they're not even concerned with what's fair, because they don't represent the interest of the blacks. So the shabby treatment that the black officers received could not be placed on one individual, or two individuáis, but the whole Department, who reacted in the same way. And that was one of total disrespect. Jim Brown: I was on duty the night the order came out: t was to take effect the following day. l'll teil you what happened, and you can see how t was a planned conspiracy by the union on how the blacks were going to be treated. Okay, there were three of us on duty, we were sitting there and having a nice conversation. So the union director came to the engine house. He walked in, first thing he did, kicked the chair over. So right then, we said, "He's hostile abou Continued on page 3 "The whites are rallying not only against the City administration, but against the black firefighters. It is a dangerous situation today to be in the fire station."