YOUNGSTOWN Safety forces' strike of '76 remembered
One officer recalled hearing how some police threw nickels at the city's chief negotiator.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- On Friday, Oct. 1, 1976, The Vindicator ran a photo of city firefighters tearing up a "Safety Forces on Strike" sign.
One young member of the Youngstown Fire Department, though, kept his sign and framed it.
"I put it in a frame about a year and a half ago and added headlines," said Robert Sharp, who retired last December after 27 years. "We, firefighters and police, felt very strongly about the lack of pay, and the sign is a symbol of what we truly believed in."
Sharp, now 50 and a state fire marshal, said he thought about that special bond of solidarity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York that claimed so many police and firefighters' lives. The safety forces death toll surpasses 300.
"It takes something really bad to happen before police and firefighters get recognized," he said. "It hit home how important these people really are and what they do."
Agreement: His thoughts were echoed by police and firefighters interviewed for this story.
Most citizens don't realize, they said, how strikers in 1976 quietly left the picket lines if they heard a serious call in order to be on hand to back up those who worked.
"Wherever we picketed, we knew we'd go if needed -- the work is all about saving lives," Sharp said. Firefighters keeping an eye on things who left the picket lines were called "ghost squads."
Vindicator files show the strike began about 9:30 p.m. Sept. 27, 1976, when pickets set up outside the police station on Boardman Street and fire stations throughout the city. Most of the city's 290 police and 260 firefighters did not report to work.
Unions that represented sanitation and street and wastewater treatment plant workers also struck. Photos from the time show trash neatly piled near curbs.
Legislation: The 1947 Ferguson Act, which prohibited strikes by safety forces, was replaced in 1983 with the Collective Bargaining Act.
When city police and firefighters first struck in 1967, they were thought to be the first in the nation to do so.
At the time of the 1976 strike, city police and firefighters had an annual base wage of $11,436. The two sides had negotiated for 10 months then reached an impasse.
Threatened with being fired, they settled after three days for a retroactive 6 percent raise for 1976 and 6.5 percent for 1977.
YPD Detective Sgt. Joe DeMatteo recalled the city offering a nickel-per-hour raise and learning that some officers threw nickels at the city's chief negotiator.
"I heard [the negotiator] just kept walking," said DeMatteo, now head of the bomb squad.
News reports show that crime and fires increased.
Backup: Donald G. Baker, police chief at the time, scheduled skeleton crews 12-hour shifts. Rookie cops on probation had to work.
The fire chief, George Panno, had only a few battalion chiefs and about a dozen cadet firefighters. He, too, established 12-hour shifts.
Some in the Black Knights Police Association wanted to work, which led to a dramatic confrontation between Patrolman Ernest "Butch" Paul and those he rammed his cruiser into as he left the station to start his shift, said Law Director Robert E. Bush Jr.
Bush, a patrolman at the time, said there was nearly a shoot-out when Paul plowed into the pickets.
"I was down by the [city hall] steps when all hell broke loose," Bush said.
The incident, which included Paul jumping out of his cruiser with his gun drawn, made the ABC national news.
Sgt. Joe Datko remembers the overhead door going up and Paul tearing out of the police garage.
"He just gunned the engine and three of them rode the hood," Datko said, describing the injured.
Patrolman Lou Ciavarella, now a bomb squad technician, was just to the right of the door and recalls that Paul "flew out of the garage."
Ted Terlesky, a shift sergeant at the time, was Paul's supervisor. Now Youngstown schools' security chief, Terlesky said he raised the garage door to let Paul out "then I had to go out and save him."
Terlesky said the melee on the street could have been a lot worse.
Ciavarella said strikers got a lot of support from the community -- including coffee and sandwiches from downtown businesses.
Recollections: On a lighter note, Datko chuckled as he recalled a motorcycle gang, the Afro Dogs, riding past striking officers, taunting as they revved their engines.
Datko also remembers how supportive the citizens were and how the strike drew TV and print reporters from Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as had the strike in 1967.
Sharp, DeMatteo, Ciavarella and others also recall having the strike covered by reporters from all over and seeing it on national newscasts.
CBS, Sharp said, showed up at the union hall to film the massive turnout the night the safety forces voted to strike.
To Joe Jasinski, now assistant fire chief, the 1976 strike is "kind of a blur." He does recall, as many other do, that had anything drastic occurred, "everyone would have pitched in." Firefighters, he said, are just that way, dedicated to what they do.
What happened at the World Trade Center in New York, where so many firefighters died trying to rescue victims of the terrorist attack, is proof of the dedication, Jasinski said.
Doing his duty: Just hours before the 1976 strike began, Martin Conti, then a YFD captain assigned to the McGuffey Road station, was at a two-alarm fire at a tire store on Oak Street.
His wife called the station looking for him after seeing on the TV news a firefighter laying on Oak Street.
"That was me. I was caught in a backdraft -- the building exploded," said Conti, 60. "I was injured, blown up so to speak, with a concussion and facial burns and ended up at St. Elizabeth's."
About 4:30 a.m., just as his supervisor, Charles O'Nesti, showed up at the hospital to take Conti home, another alarm sounded for a fire on Car Street.
"O'Nesti and I responded to the fire and I remember him saying 'Where the heck is Car Street?'" Conti said.
"I went to second fire with him; I knew exactly where Car Street was at. After that, guess what? Another fire alarm at the Jewish Community Center."
Conti didn't have to make a decision about striking or going to the third fire. He said the union president, noting his concussion, told him to go home.
"I never participated in the strike per se," said Conti, who retired about six years ago. "I participated in the first walkout in 1967. That's the thing about a union, either you're together or you're not."
That type of solidarity is needed now, Conti said of the country's need to stick together in light of the terrorist attacks reportedly carried out by Middle Eastern men two weeks ago.
Research: In researching Vindicator files for this story, a reporter came across an Associated Press wire photo published Sept. 28, 1976 that showed the bodies of three terrorists hanging from a gallows in a Damascus square.
The square faced the Semiramis Hotel where 90 hostages had been held the day before until police intervened. A fourth terrorist and four hostages were shot to death during a seven-hour police siege.