Firefighters' Contempt for Byrne Fades 33 Years After Strike
CHICAGO — Valentine’s Day is for lovers — unless you’re old-school Chicago firefighters.
For that special breed of smoke-eating public servants, it’s a chance to celebrate their bitter breakup with former Mayor Jane Byrne.
Like a lot of failed relationships, “lies” were at the center of the split, better known as the great Chicago Firefighter Strike of 1980.
That’s the year Byrne reneged on a campaign promise to give the firefighters union — which had previously agreed to handshake labor agreements — a written contract.
So, on Feb. 14, 1980, more than 4,000 firemen packed up their firehouse gear and split in the middle of the night.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning, we went to the firehouse and got our helmets, boots and axes, and walked out,” retired fire Capt. Tom Luczak said. “My lieutenant said, ‘You guys said you weren’t gonna strike.’ And we all said, “Yeah, we lied … just like the mayor.”
The scorned mayor retaliated by making threats and hiring replacement firefighters willing to cross the picket line.
The union president, the late Frank “Moon” Muscare, refused to send his members back to work, and a judge threw him in the clink for contempt of court.
Still, the striking firefighters wouldn’t break.
They manned a 24-hour picket line in the cold, huddled around barrel fires and chanted: “Burn, Witch Byrne.”
After 23 days, the former mayor caved. Byrne gave firefighters the union contract they wanted.
Before the firefighters went back to work, they celebrated.
“Jane Byrne, we’ll never forget her,” Luczak said. “That was the best party she ever threw.”
Every Valentine’s Day since, Chicago firefighters have abandoned their best girls to toast their victory with fellow strikers. They call themselves the Brotherhood of the Barrel, B.O.B. for short.
In 2000, about 600 firefighters celebrated the 20th anniversary of the strike with a weeklong reunion.
Gatherings take place all over the country, particularly in Florida and Arizona, where a significant flock of former firefighting snowbirds migrate for the winter.
Here, strike veterans get together at private clubhouses — there’s one on each side of town — built in the early '80s so they wouldn’t have to “drink with the scabs.”
This year, the strike party started a day early at the North Side Fire Brigade, a private, no-scab firefighter club at 6240 W. Addison St.
“We do it over two days so we can accommodate guys on different shifts,” said Luczak, who bartends at the club once a week.
Inside, the walls are lined with strike memorabilia — picket signs, banners, photos of guys picketing around barrels and portraits of happy firefighters their first day back on the job.
Guys at the bar sipped canned light beer, smoked cigars and shared stories about the old-timers who kept them committed to the strike — a fight that was about getting better equipment and more manpower, along with raises, overtime and holiday pay. Guys in the department are now better for it, Luczak said.
They busted each other’s chops, too.
“Hey, Mahoney tell him about your 40 children,” firefighter Kevin O’Grady said.
Retired battalion chief Joe Mahoney laughed and turned to me.
“You know I threatened to sue Moon for child support because I wasn’t supposed to be off that day,” he said. “I had a baby born that October.”
Mahoney, a jokester who now lives in Algonquin, pointed to a framed poster of Byrne and her late husband, Jay McMullen — a former Chicago Daily News City Hall reporter who could back up his famous boast, “I can roll over in bed and scoop the Tribune.”
The poster was a "Wizard of Oz" spoof that portrayed Byrne and McMullen as the Wicked Witch of The West and a flying monkey, respectively.
“This one is my favorite,” Mahoney said.
Behind the bar stands a portrait of “Moon” on a shelf next to another photo of Byrne and McMullen, with a sign that reads, “Always a Fireman’s Friend.”
The guys still get a kick out of that, because for a long time Jane Byrne was a dirty word in firefighter circles.
But after 33 years, the strikers’ contempt for the former mayor has faded, explained retired firefighter Frank Restivo.
“There’s a little bit of bitterness, but the guys have always been happy it turned out as good as it did,” the 79-year old said. “It’s all in the past. She lost her husband, you know. We wish her well.”
A younger firefighter at the bar suggested I give Byrne a call and invite her over to the Brigade for a beer.
So, I did.
When the former mayor answered the phone, I told her that at least some of the firefighters had let go of their strike-era grudge and asked her what she thought about that.
“To me it was one of the saddest things that happened in my entire term,” Byrne said. “I’m sorry it happened. There was little I could do. There were built-up emotions for quite a while, and it happened. That’s it.”
The 78-year-old former mayor told me she’s trying to get over the flu “like everybody else in the city,” so I didn’t bother asking her if she’d join the guys for a cold one.
Maybe I should have.
After all, it is Valentine’s Day.