Lester Tyra

Duration: 1hr: 28mins
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Interview with: Lester Tyra
Interviewed by:
Date: April 16, 1975
Archive Number: OH183

Interviewer
0:00:06.4 April 16, 1975. Interview with Mr. Lester W. Tyra, Jr. Mr. Tyra, perhaps we could begin by getting some background information. When did you first join the department?

Lester Tyra
I entered training on March 9th, 1969, and of course we trained 4 months then. I’ve been a firefighter since that time, but I’ve been related with the fire department for many years prior to that. My father joined the department in ’57, and I have always been interested in the department. I felt that it is a good job as far as security, and it also offers the opportunity to help others when the opportunity does arise. It’s not an everyday thing, but it is there. Since that time—March of ’69—I have served in the rank of PNL. In October of 1971, I was promoted to chauffer through competitive examination. I’ve held that rank since and really haven’t had time to take any other promotional examinations that have been offered. I will take the next unit captain’s test.

I served as the pension chairman during that time for a 2-year period. I served on the pension board during that period. That’s just about my background at the fire department until I became associated with the union. I’ve always been mildly active with the union from the time that I came in until—of course, you really become active once you become a board member.

Interviewer
You served on the board then?

Lester Tyra
I served—I was appointed as a trustee in 1973—to the board of trustees. I held that position as chairman of the trustees until July of 1974, at which time the former president—Joe Barina—removed himself from office, and the executive board appointed a new president, which was me. Then in November of 1974, the election for the office of president was held. I won the election by 4 to 1 without a runoff. That’s where I am today—president.

Interviewer
0:02:35.0 What lead you to the union to begin with? What did you expect out of it?

Lester Tyra
I think that you don’t expect anything out of the union. You expect what you put into something—into your job, into your family, into your life. What you can get out of it is what you put in it. I felt that from the beginning that if I was going to change something—or if the fire department was going to be good for me—that you had to be active. You had to know what was going on. You had to go with the groundwork and build and become involved. Things change from the inside not from the out, so you have to be active inside to change things.

Interviewer
Do you look upon firefighting as a profession? An occupation? What status do you give it?

Lester Tyra
It’s probably 2-fold. It’s a professional job in the fact that you need to know the things—chemistry, building construction—the whole compass or the whole thing—the whole ball of wax as far as firefighting is professionally knowing your job. It’s not just a firefighter. You know something from all fields to be a firefighter. But it’s an occupation in the fact that you have to protect yourself as a firefighter or as a laborer—anyone to join a labor union. So we have a 2-fold system there. You’re a professional yet you’re a union man or an occupation. So, it’s very difficult to define exactly what a firefighter is because of that one area. We like to be called professionals because of the prestige of being called a professional, but when it’s grass roots, you’re nothing more than a union man.

Interviewer
What are the goals of the union at present?

Lester Tyra
Of course, the last set of goals we set for our membership was collective bargaining. That is now a secondary goal because it was turned down by the voters of Houston. But we always look forward to when federal law will come into effect. It’s always been the precedent that when state and local municipalities do not fulfill the needs of the people, the federal government always comes in and takes care of it. We feel that sooner or later, collective bargaining on a national level will be introduced, and we will have it. But the present goals—and they were the secondary goals at one time—now they’ve moved up to the number 1 priority—is public education of the firefighters and of the citizens of Houston.

0:05:21.1 Now, firefighters—we have to educate the rest of the political system that they’re involved in—what’s right, what’s left, middle-of-the-road, conservative, Democrat—that spectrum. The need for the firefighter to know why he should vote for a specific item or ballot—the need for the firefighter to be aligned with the Democratic Party. Why would we consider ourselves Democrats? Why not Republicans? Why would we be considered liberal instead of conservative? These are things that we educate our members to.

At the same time, we have to have a continuing, ongoing program to build the image of the firefighter in the public’s eye. Right now the public sees the firefighter only when they call him. It’s very simple to—when you call some body and they show up, you know they’re doing their job. The fact of the matter is that when you call for an ambulance, we’re there within 5 minutes. If you call a fire in, we’re there within 3 minutes. We have a problem of relating our job to the people. The people don’t know that the mortality rate for a firefighter is 58. They don’t know that we work 56-hour workweeks. They don’t know that we have the most hazardous profession.

What they see—and it’s constantly placed before them through television, radio, newspaper—is the police officer who does not respond within 5 minutes or 3 minutes. He’s there in 30 minutes maybe. So, we have a very hard uphill battle to convince people that we are doing the job, and that you reward people for doing the job, and you don’t place restrictions on them when they do a job. Police officers have been rewarded. They’ve gotten everything they want. They get public support and sympathy—simply from the fact that they’re not doing the job—an adequate job. Firefighters are and we don’t get the recognition.

Interviewer
You made a remark just a moment ago that interested me. You said that the mortality rate for firemen was what now?

Lester Tyra
The average mortality rate for all firefighters in the United States is age 58. That’s 12 years lost off a man’s life because he likes or is dedicated to the fire profession. People don’t know that. The divorce rate for firefighters is almost 2 to 1 over any other profession because of the hours that you spend away from home. You have to work at night, and you have to work—a lot of people work shift work at night where either they go in at 11 or they get off at 11. Firefighters in Houston, for example—we go in at 3:30 in the afternoon, and we get off at 6:30 in the morning—15 hours. We call it 14 because of the variance in the shifts, but you spend 3 nights a week away from home. It does cause a strain. Your wife’s wondering—he’s going into work. She knows the problem. Is he going to come back? And it’s simply that the strain is there—not seeing him, not being in contact with him—it’s very difficult.

0:08:30.2 The mortality rate—58 years of age. We talked about that. You brought that up. It’s brought about from various things. People are always down on firefighters because we sleep. Well, it’d be nice—if you worked 8 hours, you wouldn’t have to sleep. But when you’re working a 14-hour night and you make 1 fire, you put out more physical effort in the first 15 minutes of that fire than a worker would in an 8-hour day. First of all, if you’re in bed, or you’re in a relaxed position, and you have to go from a stop to a dead run to get to that apparatus, your heart rate—and these are statistics which are open to anyone. A doctor in Denver—I think it was Denver—ran some tests. The average heart rate of a Los Angeles firefighter—they found out—was 150 beats per minute when he got out of bed. That was the average. It went up to like 190 from the moment the alarm came in from a dead sleep. And during the activity of the fire it stayed around 125 to 140. It’s a tremendous strain upon the body—physical strain on the pulmonary system of the body—to function as a firefighter. And it’s just that simple. That’s why we lose 12 years of our lives.

Interviewer
Concerning the 56-hour week, has there been any improvement in that in the last 5 years or so to bring that down?

Lester Tyra
Yes. Mayor Hofheinz—early in his administration—had agreed to negotiate an hours reduction. Now we still work 56 hours, but we’re granted 2 hours per week in Kelly time, which accumulates. When you get—every 6 weeks you accumulate 1 Kelly day which allows you to take off. So it’s an hours reduction that way. We work 54, but we’re still on duty 56. We’re in the process of negotiating a further hours reduction—either to 48 or 52. We don’t know which one at this time. It’s interesting to note that New York firefighters have had a 40-hour workweek for something like 30 to 40 years. Chicago firefighters have had 40-hour workweeks for about 30 years. And they sleep on duty. There’s no way around it. It’s a physical strain—the tension, the nervousness is there.

0:11:13.9 But we in Houston face—the technology here is tremendously different from a New York or Chicago department. We’re looking forward to hours reduction within the next few years, and we hope to be down to a 40, 42-hour workweek—within the next 5 years at least.

Interviewer
Let’s go back to the recent election and collective bargaining. What did you hope to accomplish if you had won that election?

Lester Tyra
Our number 1 goal upon winning collective bargaining would be—and I hate to use the word force, but it would have been force—we would have forced the city to recognize the problems of the fire service for what they are. They’re good, understanding people over there, but they don’t recognize the tremendous problem with the fire service, and you can’t recognize it unless you recognize the people in the department that actually do the physical firefighting.

The administrators know—they know the problem, but they’re appointed, and they work directly for the mayor. They’re not going to rock the boat for that simple reason. Somebody has to carry the ball, and that’s what we were going to do. We were going to point out the fact that only 1 out of every 3 firefighters has a Scott Air Pack to fight a fire with. You can’t adequately fight a fire in the city of Houston or any city unless you have enough safety—peripheral safety gear to do the job, and we don’t have it. We’re correcting those situations now because we have a favorable mayor—Mayor Hofheinz. But who’s to say the next mayor won’t come in and wipe that out? You never know. That’s why collective bargaining would have been a concrete agreement between us and the city, which would continue regardless of who’s president over here, who’s mayor, and who’s fire chief. We tried to express that position, and for some reason the people wouldn’t buy it. We had a lot of big money people go against us, and it wasn’t because they’re against firefighters. It was because they’re against labor unions. That’s simply what we started out to do—to try to nail something down for our firefighters in writing.

Interviewer
You present me with a few questions. How would collective bargaining have operated?

Lester Tyra
The law—House Bill 185—passed in the 63rd legislature of 1973. It went into effect on August the 26th of that year. It simply was a process by which local option was tagged on. A little background on that even—the firefighters are a tremendous lobbying group across the state. 0:14:21.3 We were ranked number 2 by the 63rd legislature. We caused some pressure in a certain sense. I hate to use terms like pressure and force, but that’s simply—that’s the way they are.

We had an agreement with Governor Briscoe that he would sign any kind of collective bargaining bill that came out of the legislature, and he agreed to that I think because he didn’t think it could possibly happen in that time. It failed in ’71. He felt sure—I’m sure he felt in his mind that it would fail in ’73. So, we did pass it. It was one hell of a battle, really. Down to the last few weeks and really some political maneuvering got it to his desk without local option on it. It would have just—simply his signature, and all fire/police officers in the state of Texas have collective bargaining. Okay.

There’s 1 force bigger than the firefighters and that’s the Texas Municipal League with Dick Brown. They came up and told the governor, “We’re not buying this. We want it with a local option on it.” So, the governor comes out and says, “Well, I’m opposed to it now it the present form.” And this was like with a couple of days left in the session. They’re thinking that if they can get it back into legislature it’s going to die there because there’s just no way for it to progress through. So, the governor vetoes it in the present form. Sends it back. If there’s a local option he’ll sign it—knowing that it is not going to go through the legislature. It passes the House with the option tagged and goes to the Senate. This was—I think it had 2 days left in the session.

The opponents of the bill—they just flat screwed up on parliamentary procedure. They let Lieutenant Governor Hobby outfox them, and I sincerely believe he knew what he was doing when he did it. They called for—a motion was made to adjourn. Anyway, the people left and they didn’t have the vote to adjourn, and it came up that the bill passed with a minimum number of people present in the Senate, and the governor signed it. So, the law itself was very simple in the way it laid out. It allowed police and fire departments—organizations—to organize and bargain collectively with municipalities.

It was a no-strike provision—very severe strike provision in that you would lose your duty check off. You would lose civil service rights and pay raise rights. It also had provisions against lockouts by officers or administrators. It allowed the 4 steps to bargain with the municipality. Number 1—collective bargaining which the union would come up with a team of negotiators, sit down, and come up with a contract. Eighty to 90% of all contracts are reached with collective bargaining. No force, just verbal agreement. They they’re signed. But this law had 3 bypass procedures in it in case there was a problem in negotiations that couldn’t be settled with collective bargaining.

0:17:47.0 Number 1 was simply a mediator—a federal mediator or any other mediator we want— which proves very effective. Probably up to 95% of all claims are settled with either collective bargaining or a mediator. Next was arbitration which was voluntary in this law, by which voluntary—we term voluntary because the city had to agree to it. We couldn’t just say we want to arbitrate. The city had to sit down and agree to arbitrate. If they didn’t, we never would have arbitration. But the 4th procedure for a collective bargaining impasse procedure was the review by a district court. We felt that with those procedures and that kind of impasse lane that collective bargaining would have been good for firefighters and for the city. And that’s simply what we were asking for is those 4 basic rights—to sit down and negotiate and sign a contract.

Interviewer
Some critics of collective bargaining have said that it would have opened a door for sickouts— which in effect are strikes—and other type of activities like cut backs, and this was 1 reason why they were opposed to it.

Lester Tyra
That was their big hit, and they tied us back in with the sickout—it was September the 9th of ’74. But the fact is that in states that have granted collective bargaining to police and fire officers, there has been no strikes, no sickouts, no job actions. That’s with adequate laws. I’m not talking about laws that just grant collective bargaining with no impasse procedures. New York had that. They had arbitration without collective bargaining. You need the whole ball of wax to make it work. You just can’t make collective bargaining work. You can’t make arbitration work. They’re all interlocking, working together. In the cities and the states that have collective bargaining, there haven’t been any problems. But where there have been inadequate laws or no laws at all, the problems have arisen.

In Houston, we didn’t have a collective bargaining law to negotiate that problem at that time. We had a sickout. New York—they had—they just walked off the job up there because they didn’t have any impasse procedures. The law’s been amended now to allow for that in New York. Every city that has had problems has generally gone back and amended the law to allow some kind of impasse procedure. The opponents were hollering strike, and sickout, and lockout, and all of that which was—they were misinterpreting the facts, and the news media—I’d say the news media in the city of Houston helped them quite a bit. We felt that because of inadequate laws on the books now we couldn’t get our story told correctly. The Chronicle with 3 editorials against collective bargaining and not 1 time did they mention facts or figures that dealt with Houston or with what the need is in Houston. They would go to Pennsylvania, New York—somewhere like that. That’s just 1 of those things. It wouldn’t have happened. I couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen. I can’t guarantee you that they won’t walk off tomorrow.

0:21:18.1 Even after the election, we kind of felt like maybe the best way to get heard is to just shut the damned thing down right now. If they wouldn’t listen to us 1 way—well, let’s just all leave and just see. But being reasonable men, we talked about that, and we felt that perhaps we should build our image, and that’s what the other program we discussed earlier was about—building the image of the fire—bringing the bargaining problem and the fire problem to the public’s attention. Make them think they need collective bargaining. We know we need it. We need to convince the public that they need it, and they do.

Interviewer
Let me ask you this. What is the specific impasse procedure that you would have had here had you won the election?

Lester Tyra
0:22:05.1 We would have had all of those. Every 1 of those was in the law—mediation, arbitration, and court review.

Interviewer
What brought about the sickout before?

Lester Tyra
It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back situation. Everyone knows—firefighters went out in 1973 and elected a mayor, and I’ve taken those facts and figures to Mayor Hofheinz, and I showed him where the firefighters walked those black precincts and where the turnout was 20% above any other precinct in the city of Houston. The physical number of firefighters that helped elect the mayor—we know where those 2800 votes came from. There isn’t any doubt in our minds. We all worked hard and long to elect a mayor who had promised change—that it wasn’t going to be the same old thing—that I’m just going to come in, and we’re going to leave the same people there. We’re going to do something progressive for the fire department. That was the attitude that we were working for. Nobody—for once I think that the number of people—nobody was trying to say well, I’m working to be fire chief, or I’m working for so-and –so position. We were working for the betterment of the fire department through Mayor Hofheinz—if he were to be elected.

He took office in January. We didn’t get parity with the police officers like he had promised. He called out—well, he just chickened out on something that he just didn’t have the support of the council to do it. And then in the delay in getting a fire chief—3 months into the administration, he comes up with a weak fire chief—Chief Little. Milk toast. It’s just 1 of those situations where everything started building then. The EMT situation—which was created under Mayor Welch—and Chief Cook—Fire Chief Cook—really broke—

0:24:06.2 (end of audio)