Long before Rahm Emanuel presented city workers with a Sophie's choice of layoffs or work-rule changes, a Chicago mayor and municipal employees dared each other to blink.
In 1980, neither Jane Byrne nor the Chicago Firefighters Union did.
The result was the city's first and only firefighters strike, which left the city with minimal fire protection and ambulance service for the 23 days of a walkout whose bitter echoes reverberate through the Tribune's archives.
Attending a 20th reunion of strikers, a Tribune reporter noted: "Even today, fliers for invitations to retirement parties are marked with B.O.B., to make it clear that only strikers are welcome."
The initials stand for "Brotherhood of the Barrel," a reference to the makeshift heaters that picketers used to warm themselves during a Chicago winter.
From Feb. 14 to March 7, Chicago's 4,350 firefighters were like families divided during the Civil War, when brother fought brother. There were angry confrontations through firehouse windows between strikers and scabs.
A reporter witnessed a picketer busting three windows, "two with his own hands." Two striking firemen later were convicted of arson for setting fire to an empty apartment building.
Carol Moseley Braun, then a state representative, watched an improvised crew fight a fire across from her South Side office.
"People were screaming and jumping out windows," she said. "Those firemen didn't know what they were doing."
During the strike, 24 people died in fires in Chicago. How many of them died because of the walkout will never be known.
For residents, it was a horror show of the mayor's making, as Tribune columnist Bob Wiedrich noted: "Mayor Byrne created her own Frankenstein."
Running for office, she'd promised firefighters an innovation — a written contract — but hadn't fulfilled the promise.
Byrne vowed to fire strikers, marking her resolve Chicago-style: "No fix, no clout, nothing will put them back." The city rushed half-trained recruits and city truck crews onto the rigs.
In the end, Rev. Jesse Jackson nudged the two sides back to the bargaining table. The firefighters got the contract promised. Best of all, they got back to what is for them not a trade, but a calling:
"I've pulled babies out of burning buildings," one striker said. "And I've been in those abandoned warehouses that just happened to catch on fire and your foot sinks through the rotten floor and you just about disappear for good. I love the job."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun