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Firefighters sue city over contract negotiations

These are busy days for the HPFFA.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s fire union sued the city Wednesday alleging Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration failed to act in good faith during contract negotiations, exacerbating tensions between firefighters and City Hall.

The lawsuit filed in state district court came just two days before firefighters’ “evergreen” labor agreement with the city expires, at which point local and state law will govern their employment until a new deal is reached.

Those employment terms – unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday morning – are less favorable than those in the evergreen.

Turner said he offered to extend the more generous arrangement another 30 days while negotiations continued, but the fire union preferred to resolve the issue in court.

“When you say no, what do you expect a city to do?” Turner said before council voted to amend local ordinance. “They made their choice.”

A letter provided by the mayor’s office shows the city on May 12 proposed extending the collective bargaining agreement by 15 days. Three days later, firefighters declared an impasse, allowing them to request an arbitrator to settle the contract dispute.

The city declined that option, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said, but agreed to mediation, which began last week.

[…]

South Texas College of Law Houston Professor Richard Carlson said the vagueness of state law makes it difficult to assess firefighters’ chance of success.

“Our law is still very uncertain, and when you throw in the fact that public employees can’t strike anyway, it’s hard to say what the practical outcome in any of these cases is,” Carlson said.

It’s been a busy couple of months for the firefighters, and not in a good way. They lost the fight over the pension reform bill in the Lege, and subsequently filed a lawsuit over it. This fight was over their collective bargaining agreement with the city, which expired three years ago. I’m not exactly sure what they were hoping to accomplish with their negotiating tactics, but it appears they didn’t get what they wanted. I don’t know what will happen with these lawsuits or the contract talks, but I get the sense that the firefighters have lost some goodwill. It’s more than a little incredible that no one on Council voted against the less-favorable employment terms for them. They’re big players in city elections, so either they now have a lot of former friends or they have a problem of image or communications or something that they might want to consider addressing. I don’t know how to advise them other than to say they ought to give this all some thought. The Press has more.

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5 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    I think they’ve lost a tremendous amount of goodwill this year thanks to the tactics promoted by their union and pension board. That’s a shame too because the vast majority of the firemen are good people who work an almost impossible job for many who are very uncaring. Some of these tactics worked worked for a long time to let them keep benefits their counterparts in municipal government lost long ago and the state encouraged them to do so by giving them most of what they asked for but the new management at the pension board doubled down and lost repeatedly.

    If they get what they want via the courts, that approach will be picked up by the other groups moving forward because it will be shown that there is no benefit to cooperation, no other group of Houston employees getting 20% raises over three years in recent memory (except department heads of the mayor’s staff under Parker). Dr. Carlson believes that one side can’t unilaterally declare an impasse in negotiations so let’s see what the courts say, the bottom line being that each side has already moved toward the other from original demands. The pension lawsuit is so technical that I remain unconvinced it will gain any traction but I still wonder why they decided not to sue the state since that was the body passing the law to change pension benefits (a separation of powers kind of thing).

  2. C.L. says:

    I don’t know what’s happened in the Country, but the amount of litigation taking place ’cause a person didn’t get what they wanted or didn’t want what they got has reached biblical proportions. Here’s a novel path – stop pensions altogether. Pay the employee a salary commensurate with the demand for the/their service, and let the individual decide to invest their money for a rainy day event [or not]. If a HFD firefighter doesn’t like what HFD pays under that scenario, then please, feel free to ply your trade elsewhere.

  3. Smith102 says:

    Where has the country gone? How about integrity of honoring a contract? If you want to change the rules on new hires, that’s fine. A promise should mean something.w

  4. Steve Houston says:

    Smith, which contract are you speaking of? The pay contract expired 3 years ago but was honored right up until the evergreen clause expired. The pension arrangement was not even a “contract”, the terms changing over time but never entered into by individual employees. Compare that to the municipal employees who gave up significant benefits multiple times while HFD benefits were actually increased or even the cops whose pension contract was set to expire in 2023(?) or so. But the suggestion that you had an ironclad, unchanging contract flies in the face of the truth, all the emotional ploys to suggest otherwise only showing a growing sense of desperation.

    Now that the Mayor, city council, state legislature, governor, and courts have weighed in regarding supposed contracts, your boys are out there trying to re-establish some form of pay parity with a group that gets substantially less compensation in the form of pensions (and have for 13 years). Will the referendum address that aspect of compensation too or just cherry pick the good stuff. I’d love to hear just how you compare various employment ranks for each department too, the job duties for each profession are nothing alike, nor are the needed credentials or spans of control. Given the city has more than doubled its original offer for pay raises, something few municipal employees have ever experienced unless they were upper management, maybe it’s time to shelve all offers until city finances improve.

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