Waukegan Strike Was CCPA's Medal of Honor

Illinois Police & Sheriff’s News

Waukegan Strike was CCPA’s Medal of Honor

From the Archives, 1970IPSN Newspaper, April 28, 1997

IN THE SHORT version, the 1970 blue flu that turned into a nine-month strike that resulted in the firing of 55 Waukegan police officers was a major loss for CCPA.

BUT FOR THOSE front-line Waukegan cops who voted repeatedly and overwhelmingly to take on a deranged, autocratic and power-mad Mayor, the strike was nothing less than the fledgling union’s “medal of honor.”

This was a strike-in-planning that had been brewing for months. But CCPA got into the mix only about three days before the first “blue flu” calls were made in July of 1970. And although the union did not actually initiate the strike, CCPA President John J. Flood, Attorney Art Loevy and other key strategists from the union side saw the conflict through to its unbelieveably bitter end.

Along the way, Mayor Robert “The Rock” Sabonjian, a physically small man who adorned his office with huge portraits of himself, would arrange to have his city patrolled by both the Lake County Sheriff’s Police and the Illinois State Police and would himself take to carrying a gun. And, given that striking cops carried picket signs proclaiming how they would grind “The Rock” into a pebble, it may be that Sabonjian was well advised to arm himself.

Events leading up to the Waukegan strike included the erratic behavior of a Sabonjian-appointeed police chief, stalemated salary negotiations, a non-existant grievance system and the adamant refusal of Sabonjian and the political yes-men around him to even meet with Flood and the CCPA.

TO UNDERSTAND what John J. Flood and his followers in the then-Cook County Police Association were up against in Waukegan, it’s necessary to know something about the character of “The Rock.”

Sabonjian liked to say that his City Council meetings were run according to the terms outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, “and my name is Robert,” he would say. Besides being an intransigent dictator, Sabonjian was an obvious racist. During the 1966 rioting in Waukegan’s black ghetto, the Mayor referred to the rioters as “scum, hoodlums, bums and animals.” At the same time, he seriously proposed to the Illinois General Assembly that unwed mothers be jailed and their children placed in orphanages.

Although Sabonjian could always be counted on to garner publicity with his extreme positions, he was not all that good at capturing votes outside the confines of his own hometown. When he ran for the Senate against Charles Percy, he drew 41,965 votes compared to more than two million for Percy.

AND, PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANTLY, the City of Waukegan had for years carried a local ordinance on its books that allowed police and other city employees the right to organize and to choose a union to represent them. This was at a time when police around the State were locked into the “collective begging” mode, instead of something more nearly like the collective bargaining concept that CCPA pioneered.

But even though the law was on the cops’ side in the matter of forming a union and negotiating a contract, Sabonjian just simply took the position that no such legal protections existed for the then 78-member Waukegan Police Department. Part of the CCPA effort to turn the multi-month strike into a victory was waged before the Civil Service Commission and several Lake County Circuit Court venues. In all cases, even though the law giving police the right to organize was clearly on the side of the police and their union, the political puppets who heard the union arguments consistently ruled in favor of “The Rock,” and against the striking police.

AND, BY THE TIME Sabonjian’s Civil Service Commission fired the striking officers and several Lake County Courts under his control upheld the original firing, much of the public support that the police had enjoyed during the early days of the strike had become only a vague memory. By about four or five months after the strike was originally touched off in July, the steady stream of media-carried venom that Sabonjian was spewing on a daily basis had successfully turned most of Waukegan against Flood, the CCPA and the rank and file cops.

It was the Hitlerian “Big Lie” theory writ large and come to rest 50 miles north of Chicago. “The great masses of the people would rather believe a great lie if it is told often enough than a small one that is told less frequently,” was the way the Nazi dictator taught it. In Waukegan, Sabonjian had obviously learned that particular lesson well.

By about October of 1970, if not before, the union and the cops were obviously the villans, even though the law granting them the right to organize was clearly on their side. Sabonjian, the power-mad dictator-in-training who had chosen to make his own law, was seen by most Waukegan residents as the man who was single-handedly saving the city from the scourge of a bunch of cops who wanted to be paid a living wage and who sought to have some modest measure of control over their own lives.

IT WAS a tough fight. The 55 Waukegan police who were illegally fired stayed fired. Careers were destroyed. Families were disrupted if not completely broken up. Organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police began parroting the Sabonjian line and attacking John J. Flood and CCPA. But even though the 1970 Waukegan strike ended as an obvious loss for the first police union to ever negotiate a signed contract in the State of Illinois, it was nevertheless the battle that won this union its “Medal of Honor.”

That was 1970. Years later, in 1989, John J. Flood wrote the following letter in response to a Chicago Tribune article on the occasion of Sabonjian leaving office: “Although we wish him (Sabonjian) luck in life’s twilight, I speculate he will still lose sleep and walk the floor at night for what he did to those dedicated police officers and their families in 1970. His actions were a moral wrong and he will always be remembered in labor history as a vicious employer who trampled upon the democratic rights of working men and women.”