Did you know … that California firefighters were the first public employees to win the right to organize?
When the city of South Pasadena passed an ordinance essentially banning its firefighters from organizing, it was a pivotal moment for the labor movement in California.
If allowed to stand unchallenged, the South Pasadena law could have led to the shut down of every public employee union in the state.
In 1952, Federated Fire Fighters and its Oakland affiliate secured votes at the State Federation of Labor convention to pursue public employee “right to organize” legislation.
By 1958, Federated Fire Fighters’ membership had exploded, including Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014, dramatically expanding the state union’s influence.
The 1958 statewide elections swept in labor-friendly majorities in both houses of the Legislature, as well as the first labor-friendly governor in a generation: Democrat Edmund G. “Pat” Brown.
The next year, 1959, Assembly Bill 618 was introduced by Culver City Democrat Lester McMillan. The original measure included the right to organize as well as collective bargaining and compulsory arbitration. The latter two provisions would wait for future legislation.
In May of 1959, Gov. Brown signed AB 618. By modern standards, AB 618 was extremely modest: Without collective bargaining or arbitration, the real power still rested with management.
Nonetheless, the legislation was a turning point for the public sector labor movement in California: the first statute in California history to guarantee the right of any group of public employees to organize in a union.