Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Bryan Sky-Eagle

At an impasse

Doesn’t look like there will be any new collective bargaining agreement between the city and the firefighters this year.

Houston’s firefighters union declared an impasse with the city over a new labor contract, which a union negotiator called a “slap in the face” on Thursday.

The deadlock comes less than a month after Mayor Annise Parker announced the union was coming back to the bargaining table despite overwhelmingly defeating the city’s last proposal.

That rejected contract would have given the firefighters a 4 percent raise starting in 2015 but limited when they could take time off. City officials came back Thursday with essentially the same offer, but dropped the 4 percent raise to 3 percent. That’s likely because council members amended Parker’s budget, which set aside money for the proposed contract and effectively “spent the raise.”

“So now I’m looking at a 3 percent offer that reduces the cap on holidays, reduces the cap on vacations and I’m not supposed to take that, or have these members take that, as, in essence, a slap in the face,” union negotiator Michelle Bohreer said.

[…]

The city has looked to scale back overtime costs, which earlier this year almost drove the department over budget. During the budget crisis, HFD had to pull ambulances and engines from duty some days to keep costs down.

A March contract temporarily resolved that problem, with firefighters agreeing to give up some freedom to take time off in exchange for a 2 percent raise and a $975 lump-sum payment. Those scheduling restrictions expired at the end of June.

See here, here, here, and here for the background; Mayor Parker’s statement is here. The city has a legitimate interest in managing vacation time and overtime pay, as any private sector business would have. By the same token, I understand why the firefighters would be reluctant to give up something that they now have. Given the current budget situation and the overwhelming rejection of the first agreement, I have no idea how much room there is to negotiate at this point. The one thing I am sure of is that all this will be a prominent feature in the 2015 Mayoral race. It will be very interesting to see which candidates stake out which positions.

Back to the drawing board for the city and the firefighters’ union

Don’t expect much at this point.

Negotiators for the city of Houston and its firefighters union will return to the bargaining table to discuss a new labor contract weeks after union members soundly defeated the last proposed deal, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.

The mayor and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 president Bryan Sky-Eagle had said after the vote – which saw 93 percent of members opposed – that both sides were open to more talks, but it’s unclear whether a deal acceptable to the union can be reached.

“It is encouraging that the union is willing to resume negotiations,” Parker said in a release. “We will bargain in good faith, but crafting an alternative agreement will require creativity and flexibility now that City Council has approved a new city budget that utilizes all available resources.”

In other words, officials have said, the council amended Parker’s proposed budget to add a series of spending items that “spent the raise” that had been set aside to accommodate the proposed contract. The rejected deal would have given firefighters a 4 percent raise beginning Jan. 1 in exchange for restrictions on when they could take time off.

See here and here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The most likely outcome at this point is that the firefighters will continue under the current agreement, which provides no raises but also puts no restrictions on who can take vacation when, until 2016, when the firefighters hope there is a Mayor they believe to be friendlier to their interests in office. It’ll be interesting to see who positions himself or herself as their champion in the race. Houston Politics has more.

Firefighters union rejects contract deal

Oops.

The contract rejected Tuesday by 93 percent of the roughly 2,900 firefighters voting would have taken a similar approach, granting a pay raise in exchange for concessions on members’ ability to take leave. With the no vote, as of July 1 members of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 enter an “evergreen” period under their prior contract that would run through 2016 unless a new agreement is approved.

The evergreen situation would provide no raises, but imposes few effective caps on how many firefighters can take time off, raising questions about whether the department’s proposed $507 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes enough money to cover overtime costs, and whether HFD will repeat the fiscal woes of recent months.

“Make no mistake about it, this is a resounding statement that the firefighters are together on this. That the concessions are too high, that giving back was enough,” said fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle, whose team negotiated the deal. “I’m very optimistic we’ll go back to the table and find out what went wrong and try to fix it.”

Parker said the city is willing to return to the bargaining table. She said it is far from clear, however, that the union will be able to win more favorable terms from a city council that opposed hiking HFD’s overtime budget earlier this year and is poised to vote Wednesday on several items that would cut her proposed $2.4 billion general fund budget.

“If they want to come back with the idea of significant pay raises in the next year, I’m just going to have to say it will be seriously impacted by what Council does, and my sense of the mood of Council is they’re not wanting to put a whole lot more money in the budget,” the mayor said.

See here for the background. Sky-Eagle negotiated the deal with the city, so I can only wonder where the disconnect was. The issues with overtime are real and not going anywhere on their own, so one way or another this is going to have to be dealt with. I presume they’ll figure it out eventually. The Chron editorial board has more.

City reaches contract agreement with firefighters

Give a little, get a little.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston firefighters would give up some of their ability to schedule time off in return for a pay hike under a tentative new labor contract that city officials hope will enable them to rein in overtime costs that threatened to bust the fire department’s budget this year.

The City Council and the membership of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 must ratify the agreement for it to take effect as planned on July 1.

The agreement, which includes a 4 percent raise, comes on the heels of a budget crisis that has seen the department, on some days, pull ambulances and fire trucks from the streets in recent months to control a spike in overtime costs.

[…]

Firefighters would get the 4 percent raise beginning Jan. 1, 2015, along with new terms encouraging them not to miss work, which often creates the need for shifts to be filled on short notice by replacements on overtime pay.

“Neither of us is really excited about what’s in the contract, but it moves us forward,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It’s a workable arrangement. Neither side got everything they wanted.”

The deal would run through the end of 2016, though negotiations could reopen in February 2016 on pay and some scheduling items. The idea behind that option, City Attorney David Feldman said, is to see whether voters amend a decade-old cap on city revenue that Parker has said will force layoffs next year if left unaltered. The deal would last only 30 months because of these uncertainties, Parker said.

Fire union President Bryan Sky-Eagle said the raise is not what firefighters deserve, but he said the union acknowledges a need to work with the city given its revenue limitations.

The contract, Sky-Eagle added, also allows for more flexible scheduling, improves a voucher program by which firefighters buy uniforms and equipment, and secures city promises not to hand its emergency medical service over to private firms or to replace the firefighters running it with civilians.

“Am I going to say it’s the best deal for firemen? No. But am I going to say it’s the best deal we can get under this mayor, this administration? It’s about as fair as you can get,” Sky-Eagle said. “The incentive programs we have in place, we think they will work. We wouldn’t have signed off on this contract if we didn’t want to give them a shot because there’s some tangible benefits for the firefighters.”

The Mayor’s press release on this is here. Seems like a reasonable deal to me, and if it avoids all the overtime problems, so much the better.

Todd Clark, chairman of the Houston fire pension board, opposes the deal. The board and the union are separate, but historically, the union contract has allowed the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund chairman to be assigned full time to the pension office while drawing a city salary via the fire department.

That “special assignment” – at Parker’s insistence, Sky-Eagle and Clark said – has been dropped in the proposal. Deluca said the change means Clark would report to work at a fire station. Clark said he will do so, while doing pension work on his days off – if the agreement passes.

“By removing me, it gives the pension enemies – for instance Mayor Parker – an advantage on making changes to our plan,” Clark said. “She doesn’t want me here because I’ve worked the last two legislative sessions and defended and protected the fund from her attacks. What this is, is retaliatory in nature.”

Whether one sees this as a brilliant piece of political strategy by the Mayor or a total jerk move likely depends on one’s opinion about the pension issue. The calculation is left as an exercise for the reader.

Firefighters union ratifies no-brownout agreement

Good.

Members of the Houston firefighters’ union have signed off on a deal with Mayor Annise Parker that would prevent pulling firetrucks from service to help balance the Fire Department’s budget.

“We’re very pleased that the union membership ratified the agreement,” Houston City Attorney David M. Feldman said in a statement released Friday.

Now that the deal has been approved by rank-and-file members of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, it’s up to Houston City Council members to vote on it. Feldman said they will take it up on Wednesday.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Council fails to approve this.

HFD union reaches a deal with the city to avoid “rolling brownouts”

From the Inbox:

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA) President Bryan Sky-Eagle joined Mayor Annise Parker this morning to announce a tentative agreement on an interim contract that will avoid the brown-outs of fire apparatus proposed earlier to solve an $8.5 million overtime shortfall at the Houston Fire Department.

“I want to thank the union for working with us to help find a solution for this situation,” said Mayor Parker.  “This is an example of what can happen when both sides are willing to negotiate in good faith.  Through productive give-and-take we were able to develop a short-term agreement that will be beneficial to the rank and file while also allowing us to deal with the overtime issue and avoid the need for idling any of our fire trucks.”

The interim pact, which still needs to be voted on by City Council and the union membership, calls for elimination of guaranteed holidays through June 30, 2014 and other changes designed to control overtime costs going forward.  In addition, based on a Fiscal Year 2014 wage reopener clause in the existing 2011 contract, firefighters will receive a two-percent across-the-board pay increase and a one-time uniform allowance with a total value of $3.64 million.  The city is agreeing to keep all fire trucks in service, provided that the two-week average of unscheduled absences does not exceed 35 members per day.  Should this two-week average be exceeded, the city reserves the right to remove units from service. Daily staffing levels will also determine whether the seven ambulances removed from service on February 25, 2014 will be placed back in service or remain idled every day through the end of the fiscal year.

“We are showing good faith with this pay raise and commitment to keeping apparatus in service,” said Parker. “I am asking the fire fighters out in the field to also show good faith by showing up for work, as scheduled.”

When asked about the interim agreement, Sky-Eagle said, “This is a win for the citizens of Houston and the firefighters are proud to work with Chief Garrison and the mayor to stop any further EMS units and fire apparatus from being removed from service.” Sky-Eagle stated, “End of the day, the firefighters knew that public and firefighter safety was more important than the timing of receiving benefits we had earned,” referring to the push of a uniform allowance into Fiscal Year 2015, freeing up authorized money for use in staffing apparatus.

The interim agreement also includes the following provisions:

  • An improved work schedule program will continue to be developed and will be implemented in the first full pay period following July 1, 2014
  • A four-year payout, instead of a lump sum termination payment, for retiring firefighters, at least through the remainder of FY14
  • An agreement by both parties that a future collective bargaining agreement will include the elimination of the District Vacation Bank concept beginning with the vacation scheduling for 2015
  • A five percent cap on guaranteed holidays from July 1, 2014 to the end of the future collective bargaining agreement the two sides anticipate reaching

Subject to expedited approval by the rank and file and City Council, the interim agreement will be in effect through the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2014.  In the meantime, negotiations will continue on a new three-year contract that would be effective July 1, 2014.  Both sides are pledging to continue good faith progress on wages, incentives and other staffing proposals that will reduce the possibility of another overtime crisis.

See here and here for the background. I’m glad they got this worked out. I doubt anyone wanted the “rolling brownouts” to happen, but there had to be some way of ensuring enough non-overtime coverage so the budget wouldn’t get blown. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Firefighters union sues city to block cutbacks

Not sure about this.

Houston firefighters went to court Tuesday in an effort to block the city from removing personnel, trucks and ambulances from service. But a judge rejected their argument that the “rolling brownouts” plan violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city.

State District Judge Elaine Palmer turned down the request for a temporary restraining order and ordered a follow-up hearing for March 7 to weigh the merits of a permanent injunction.

Fire union president Bryan Sky-Eagle said he filed the order “as a pre-emptive strike” to protect people and firefighters from the consequences of idling even more units. He argued that the purpose of the collective bargaining agreement is safety and that removing units from service undermines that.

“Once you start unilaterally making those changes, whatever the motivation may be – budgetary or political or otherwise – you start losing the intent,” Sky-Eagle said before the hearing.

City Attorney David Feldman argued at the hearing that what units are placed in service at what times is a management decision that is the city’s right to make. “The fact is, the union can’t run the fire department. The city’s got to run the fire department,” Feldman said before the hearing. “I disagree with them, obviously, as to whether there is a contractual right to have a certain number of units in service. It’s a management right, because you’ve got to deal with the resources available.”

See here for the background. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t see how this belongs in a courtroom. It’s a pretty standard budget dispute, at least as I see it. Mayor Parker said in a press release that the same kind of cutbacks were made in 2010 during the budget crunch without any objections from the union. The lack of an TRO suggests to me that the city will prevail here, but we’ll see. Texpatriate has more.