“If I could drive a team [of horses] down the street again,” retired Pittsburgh firefighter and octogenarian Samuel A. Fink (1879-1966) reminisced in 1960, “I’d be the happiest man in the world.” The zeal for firefighting expressed in that interview for the International Fire Fighter magazine was equaled by his lifelong enthusiasm for organized labor.
While a trolley-worker in 1903, Fink often spoke with firemen riding his trolley to their station. Already a member of the Rail Workers Union, he took interest in the firefighter’s fledgling union activities as well as their firefighting duties. In 1904, he became a Pittsburgh fireman.
Not much is known about the early days of unionizing Pittsburgh’s firefighters. In spring 1903, a small group of local firemen had formed the City Fireman’s Protective Association to improve their situation, and by September of that year, their association had become a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Members were fighting for a change to their 24-hour workday (the same schedule that paid firefighters had been required to work since1870), higher pay, safer working conditions, and basic job security, but their meetings were held in secret to avoid harassment from employers and the possibility of being fired for their organizing efforts.
Records in the collection indicate that the South Side Flint Workers Union provided inspiration to Pittsburgh’s firefighters, as well as actual assistance to Frank Jones, who became the City Fireman’s Protective Association’s first union president. It was Jones who, as a delegate to 1904’s AFL convention, spoke for unionizing the entire nation’s firefighters. When the Pittsburgh Fire Bureau learned of this activity, Jones was fired. The Pittsburgh union paid his salary and fought successfully for his reinstatement. In 1908, John Lannigan took over as Pittsburgh’s union president and served until Fink replaced him in 1913 (or 1915, by some accounts).
By 1918, the growing number of local firefighters unions independently applying for charter by the AFL led its president, Samuel Gompers, to convene a meeting in Washington, D. C., at which the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) was formed. Thirty-six delegates attended, representing twenty-four local unions. Five of these delegates were from Pittsburgh, including Samuel Fink. At this meeting, Pittsburgh was designated “Local 1” of the newly formed IAFF because of its standing as the first (or the earliest still-existing) firemen’s local chartered by the AFL. (Today the IAFF represents over three thousand local unions of fulltime firefighters and paramedics from the United States and Canada.) Thomas Spellacy from Schenectady, New York was elected the IAFF’s first president and Samuel Fink, its vice president. When Spellacy resigned sometime before May 1919, Fink became the new international union’s second president.
Despite the very real threat of firefighters’ losing their jobs for even attending a union’s introductory gathering, Fink helped to organize ninety-six local firefighters unions. The extensive travel involved, along with the other demands of being president of the international union, took a toll on life with his wife and six children. In September 1919, he resigned from the IAFF presidency, but remained a Pittsburgh firefighter until retiring in 1924 to seek work that would better support his family. He then established a garage on Pittsburgh’s Bigelow Boulevard and later, an auto parts supply house in Sharpsburg. His son and grandson eventually ran the business.
The Samuel A. Fink Papers at the Detre Library and Archives highlight Pittsburgh’s prominent role in the early history of unionized firefighting and also offer a peek into the personality of the man who served as the third president of Pittsburgh’s City Fireman’s Protective Association and second president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Fink’s words in a 1964 International Fire Fighter magazine sum up his thoughts on organized labor sixty years after he first became a firefighter: “The Union is still doing a fine job for the boys.”