The Waukegan Story
Waukegan police department had been brewing – over an unpopular police chief whom many of the men thought insulting and demeaning, over the’ lack of any grievance system, over stalemated salary negotiations, over refusal of city officials to meet with officials of a police union the men had just joined. That refusal was particularly galling to the men because Waukegan has a city ordinance designed to give city employees the right to bargaining representation of their choice, a right very few Illinois public employees have as a matter of law.
The matter of union recognition was to become a key issue in the struggle that was to build during the rest of the summer in Waukegan and to end with the firing of 54 patrolmen, lieutenants and sergeants. The men contend they were fired because they joined the union and the city refused to deal with it, in violation of the policemen’s rights. City officials contend they were fired because they repeatedly refused to report for duty, thus violating nine Civil Service Commission rules and their oaths of office. A court dispute over which version is correct is unfinished as this report is being written.
On that tense July night in Waukegan – Friday, July 24 – the acting police chief, George Pasenelli, working with a typist and a sergeant who had reported to work, called all the rest of the men listed on the duty roster for the night shift. Each replied that he was sick.
“Prior to reporting for duty, ” the acting chief recalled telling each of them, “You’ll bring in a doctor’s certificate stating that you were examined, and for what ailment. “
Pasenelli was a 16-year veteran of the department and had been assistant chief for just over a year. The men he was calling were friends, long-time associates, many with years of service equal to or greater than his own. It was, as he said, a “hectic night. ” The burden was his alone because the police chief, John Della Valle, was away on vacation. He came back the next day.
That first night Pasenelli sent a telegram to every member of the police department: “All days off and vacations are herewith cancelled effective immediately. You are ordered to report to the Waukegan police station at one p. m. on Saturday, July 25, 1970. ” The time on the telegram was 11:02 p. m. and Western Union reported that all the telegrams were delivered by cab “by approximately 1:35 a.m.”
The telegrams were ignored. The men did not report on Saturday. Nor Sunday. Nor Monday. Nor, many of them, ever again.
The blue flu was barely launched in Waukegan before the dispute began to center around two colorful, powerful persons. One was the mayor of Waukegan, Robert Sabonjian, who’s proud of his nickname, “the Rock, 11 and who was operating from one of the firmest political bases in the nation. The other was a great bear
of a young man named John J. Flood, a sergeant in the Cook County sheriff’s police and the founder and president of the Cook County Police Association, which had in the year and a half since its birth moved into 20 suburban Chicago police departments, conducting strikes (or sick-ins) in some of them before beginning to make some gains. Apparently each of the two instantly recognized the other as an appropriate antagonist. Sparks fly when Sabonjian speaks of Flood (“He impresses me as in authority on nothing. In my thinking, he doesn’t exist. and when Flood speaks of Sabonjian (“The Rock is afraid to face his own citizenry. He is not a rock; he’s a pebble,!.
They were the major adversaries, although they met face to face only once. In some ways the two men are remarkably similar, although neither would like the characterization and it is, indeed, only true in part. Both are selfmade men, with little formal education but with quick, shrewd minds. They are fiercely proud of their achievements. They are strong, stubborn men, quick to anger but well able, too, to exert considerable charm. Each has proved an ability to lead people. Each has the politician’s grasp of where power lies and how to use it. But there are many differences.
Mayor Robert Sabonjian and Waukegan
Sabonjian was 53 years old and in his fourth term as mayor at the time of the police strike, the only mayor in the city’s history to have served more than two terms (he’d be pleased if that reminded you of F.D. R. ). He considers himself an independent in politics, and was elected first, as an independent Democrat in 1957 (the story goes that when he filed for office that year, he borrowed a key to City Hall and arrived at 4 a. m. to assure his position at the top of the ballot). By the time of the last election, in 1969, he called himself an independent Republican. Actually, he’s claimed rather wide support by people in both parties, many of whom feel that he’s been good for Waukegan. An ardent booster for his city, he’s brought in many new industries – offering some favors and demanding some in return. Here’s an example: when the Dexter Corporation was talking of moving its Midland Paint Division out of Waukegan, the mayor arranged for the city to vacate a street and sell the land to Dexter for five cents a square foot (he said he really wanted to give it to them). In the years since, the city has openly solicited free paint from the company and its president now heads Waukegan’s Civil Service Commission, which makes him a part of this story.
The city government makes a point of using local products and businesses are under considerable pressure to buy locally, too.
“We tell contractors they’d better hire local subcontractors and buy cement locally, ” Sabonjian once explained. ” ‘This town has been good to you, we tell them. ‘Keep the money and the jobs here and we’ll all grow together. It all comes back to the city, to the people. But not one penny comes back to Robert Sabonjian. “
Sabonjian has fostered a building boom in Waukegan. – There’s a trim new municipal building, with the police and fire departments housed at one end. There’s a trim new library and a glamorous new county building, towering near Lake Michigan in the heart of downtown and wrapped around a vast plaza with fountains, flowers and sculpture.
Old-timers claim he’s cleaned up the city and Sabonjian proudly agrees. The son of an Armenian immigrant who worked in the steel mill, Sabonjian grew tip in the mill area in the south of the city and says he saw all sorts of crime, gambling and prostitution there.
“I saw all this as I grew up here, ” he recalled, “and I promised myself that if I ever became important, I’d clean up this town. When I became mayor I let everyone know that the good ol’ days were over. The slots, the wire rooms and gambling and the crumbs who ran ’em – they all got the word. I was determined that this was going to be a town where men can get work, honest work, and where kids can grow up, get an education, and come back here to work and raise families.
He presides over it all with a kind of fierce ardor; he is the city and the city is him. No detail is too small. He’ll worry, for example, about the width of the parking spaces in a new city lot, fretting that the yellow lines are so close together that the women will have trouble getting their car doors open if they’re carrying packages, fretting until he finally calls his public works superintendent and tells him to repaint the lines, providing wider spaces.
For the most part, the city’s people have been with him and the city council has been made up of his supporters. Only one alderman opposed him in his tough stand against the police. But there have been rumblings of dissent, too, with some saying he’s so entrenched politically that he’s become arrogant and autocratic. “I run the City Council, ” he once said, “by Robert’s rules of order. My name is Robert. “
From time to time, usually during election campaigns, there are charges that gambling still thrives in Waukegan, with official protection from the city. There are charges of government by crony and of potent black. lists for those out of favor.
Part of the controversy over Sabonjian centered around the nature of his tough stand during 1966 rioting in Waukegan’s black ghetto. He called the rioters “scum, hoodlums, bums and animals. ” Some people applauded but others did not, including the leadership of the black people who make up about 15 per cent of Waukegan’s population. Later he suggested to a legislative commission that unwed mothers be jailed and their children placed in orphanages; there were more then who called him racist. Apparently he was encouraged by the kind of backlash support he was getting and ran for the senate in 1966, as a write-in candidate against Charles Percy. He drew 41, 965 votes, Percy more than 2 million.