Firefighters union leader makes history
New president is first personof color in role
Lieutenant John Soares is a 22-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department.
By John R. Ellement, Globe Staff

When John R. Soares became president of Local 718 last week, the union that represents Boston firefighters made history. For the first time, the 78-year-old labor organization is now led by a person of color.

Soares is a lieutenant assigned to Ladder 7 in Dorchester and a 22-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department, which has been criticized for having few women and people of color among its firefighter and officer ranks, which are represented by Local 718.

Soares said his candidacy and engagement with union issues for more than two decades grow out of a personal belief.

“The job has given me a lot,’’ said the proud father of two adult daughters, one attending Suffolk Law School and the other a captain of Ohio State’s women’s ice hockey team. “I’m one that believes that to whom much is given, much is required.’’

Soares, 52, who grew up in Fields Corner and experienced the turmoil over the desegregation of Boston’s public schools as a child, said that he fully recognizes the historic nature of his election, especially during this politically and socially turbulent year.

“This country is in the worst situation we’ve seen in a long time. The racial tension is back to where it was in busing in the city. And I think no one in this country agrees that what happened to George Floyd was good and was right,’’ Soares said. “I think we need to treat each other better.’’

Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25 when two police officers held down his back and legs while a third pinned his knee on his neck for several minutes. A fourth officer stood a few feet away, addressing bystanders. The four officers are facing criminal charges and Floyd’s death has led to a nationwide campaign to address police brutality and systemic racism.

But Soares credits his overwhelming victory — he received 878 out of 1,447 votes cast, and bested two others, including the incumbent — to a career that has spanned a number of union posts. He believes the appeal he made during meetings with fellow firefighters across the city is the primary reason he won by such a decisive margin.

“In any business you have 3 to 5 percent who are just going to cause you grief. And we’ve always had to focus on them,’’ Soares said of his plans as president. “My idea is to change it, and focus on the 95 percent . . . My issue is: Take care of those that show up and do the job every day . . . I think we lost a little bit of our integrity and I want to bring that back. And our respect for each other, and I want to bring that back.’’

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who will face Soares at the bargaining table next year, agreed that Soares’s election is a watershed moment for the department and the city. He noted that the second-ranking leader in the department is also a Black person, but the commissioner and the majority of the rank and file are white.

“Having a person of color leading the union — that is a positive thing across the board. It absolutely shows progress. There is no question about it,’' said Walsh, who is backing legislation to create a cadet program in the Fire Department. “From what I understand, he is respected in the firehouse, has always been a hard-working firefighter. He has a great personality and a really nice guy, easy to talk to. People want a leader that can negotiate on their behalf.’’

Both Soares and Walsh said they recognize the need to increase racial diversity in the department whose members live with each other during multiday shifts in the city’s firehouses.

“We do have some room for improvement, I feel like,’’ Soares said. “We have a good group. We consider this a family. And when you are in the fire building and in a situation – it doesn’t matter, skin color doesn’t matter. That’s doesn’t come into play.‘'

Soares said his plan to redirect the union’s focus will take shape over the next several weeks as he reviews the current contract with the city, meets with union members about their concerns, and then begin negotiations in the middle of next year. The contract expires next year.

On Aug. 20, Soares attended the funeral of Fire Lieutenant Brian D. Doherty, a friend and colleague who died after a brief battle with cancer. Soares was in full dress uniform on behalf of his friend and Local 718.

“He was one of the nicest on the job, one of the best,’’ Soares said of Doherty, who was still on active duty when he fell ill. A lifelong resident of Savin Hill and a 33-year member of the department, Doherty was married and had three daughters, Soares said.

“That’s my priority. My priority is to help the family,’' he said. “We are there to honor them. We honor the family, and who he was.’’

Soares’s swearing-in ceremony was held Aug. 20 at Florian Hall, the union’s headquarters in Dorchester.

He delivered remarks the folowing day at a pandemic-delayed graduation for 53 firefighters who finished their academy training earlier this year.

“I hold this as a high honor,’’ he said of his two-year term as president. “I’m humbled by it.’’

John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.