At the dawn of the century, fire fighters worked 84 hour weeks and 24 hour shifts, with only a few hours off. Fire fighters lacked the safety equipment they have today and multiple fatalities were common. Like factory workers, fire fighters were still considered unskilled labor. Salaries were low-29 cents an hour-and few cities had pension systems or assistance for widows or dependents. Promotions were based on who had the most political influence. Vacation time was dependent on the shortage of manpower at that station.
Fire fighters knew they had to organize their own union to improve the working conditions of the fire service. Before the IAFF officially formed in 1918, 17 locals had affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The first was Washington, DC in 1901, which only briefly organized.
In 1903, Pittsburgh organized and became AFL Local 11431. Pittsburgh fire fighters, who would become IAFF Local 1, decided it was time to organize when their newly elected city government threatened to remove fire fighters who weren't supporters of the new administration. In an attempt to break up the union, their first president, Captain Frank G. Jones, was immediately fired by the city. Members of the union paid his wages and fought to have him reinstated. A partial victory was achieved in 1906 when he was reappointed as a lieutenant. Frank G. Jones went on to submit a resolution to the AFL for fire fighters to be able to organize locals across the country, marking the beginning of the IAFF, a separate union for fire fighters.
1917 Samuel Gompers and a Union for Fire Fighters
At its 1917 convention, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and President Samuel Gompers, embraced the growing number of fire fighter locals and helped create the IAFF. The AFL was formed in 1886 as one of the first assemblages of unions dedicated to organizing skilled labor. The AFL would become the largest labor organization in the world. "Our movement is of the working people, for the working people, by the working people," Gompers said. The International Association of Fire Fighters would become one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO.
1918 The International Association of Fire Fighters Is Founded
Thirty-six delegates selected from 24 locals gathered to attend the first IAFF convention on February 28, 1918 in Washington, DC. They met at the American Federation of Labor building at 10:00 a.m. to adopt a Constitution and By-Laws for the new union, created for the sole benefit of rank-and-file fire fighters in the United States and Canada . They elected Thomas G. Spellacy of Schenectady, New York the first president and William Smith as the first Secretary-Treasurer, neither of whom stayed on past 1920. The delegates debated on a name for the new organization, deciding between the International Brotherhood of Fire Fighters, the International Union of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Fire Fighters. They also proposed publishing a magazine for their members, decided the salary of officers, and approved a motion to create a Fire Fighters Fund, to benefit orphaned children of fire fighters.