City of Houston

Whitmire-backed bill requiring arbitration between Houston and its firefighters on verge of becoming state law

Senate Bill 736, sponsored by Houston mayoral candidate John Whitmire, would help bring resolution to a longstanding labor dispute between the city and its firefighters. The bill passed the Texas Senate and House and now needs a signature by Gov. Greg Abbott to immediately become state law.


Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, speaks from the podium during a news conference in July 2017.

Marty Lancton said earlier this spring that morale within the Houston Fire Department is the lowest it has ever been. There are about 400 fewer firefighters in the department than there were in 2010, while calls for service have doubled during that time, according to Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341.

Meanwhile, Houston's firefighters have been working for the city without a contract since 2017, when the union and administration of Mayor Sylvester Turner began a bitter labor dispute that has played out in the court system as well as the court of public opinion.

The city's firefighters are now on the verge of getting a boost – likely in compensation as well as in confidence – in the form of a state law that would require the union and city to reach a contract agreement through binding arbitration. Senate Bill 736, sponsored by Houston Democrat and mayoral candidate John Whitmire, unanimously passed in the Texas Senate, got near-unanimous approval from the Texas House earlier this week and now needs a signature from Gov. Greg Abbott to immediately become state law, with the governor also having the option to veto the bill.

"This is a long time coming. We are ecstatic," Lancton said Wednesday. "The city can no longer kick the dented can they've been kicking down the road. It's time for firefighters and their families to get not only what they have earned, but what they deserve."

The bill's approval by the Texas Legislature also was celebrated by Whitmire, who is considered one of the frontrunners in the race to succeed the term-limited Turner, and by state Rep. Mary Ann Perez, a Houston Democrat who carried the bill in the House. The proposed law was not opposed by any state legislators from Harris County, which includes Houston.

But Turner's administration spoke out against the bill and, if passed, asked for it not to take effect until July 1, 2024, about half a year after Turner will have left office, citing the impact it could have on the city's operating budget for the next fiscal year. However, the bill backed by Whitmire, who will be on mayoral ballot in November's election, specifically called for it to take effect immediately if passed by at least two-thirds of each chamber within the legislature, which it did.

Amidst the longstanding and ongoing legal battle with the firefighters' union, the city gave its firefighters 6 percent raises each of the last two fiscal years and has another 6 percent pay hike in the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

"The binding arbitration bill may play well for some politically, but it will not bode well for Houston and its financial future," Turner said in a statement released earlier this week. "At a time when we are trying to eliminate structural financial barriers, this bill imposes another structural barrier."

The bill would require arbitration by a three-member panel – one picked by the city, one by the firefighters' union and one agreed to by both parties – that would set the terms of a one-year contract related to compensation, benefits, working conditions and insurance, among other parameters, according to Lancton. He said the city employs about 3,650 firefighters.

"We honored firefighters from across this state and we told them repeatedly, ‘We will not forget you,' " Whitmire said. "That is the reason for me bringing Senate Bill 736 to this Senate floor: to tell the Houston firefighters we will not forget them."

Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said the biggest winner in the bill's passage might not necessarily be Houston firefighters, but Whitmire, who could be seen as a hero for bringing resolution to a stalemate at a time when Democrats have a difficult time passing laws in the Republican-controlled legislature. Senate Bill 736 also could give Whitmire an upper hand in potential future negotiations with Houston firefighters if he were to become mayor, Stein said.

The union and Turner's administration reached a collective bargaining impasse in 2017, prompting the union to sue the city and ask for a judge to set the terms of a contract for firefighters, based on guidelines outlined by Chapter 174 of Texas' Local Government Code, which was previously passed by the Texas Legislature and adopted by the city in 2003. The city responded by challenging the constitutionality of a provision in Chapter 174 that says firefighters must receive compensation that is equal to a comparable job in the private sector, arguing that no such comparable job exists.

In 2018, Houston voters approved Proposition B, a charter amendment proposed by the union to give firefighters pay parity with the city's police officers. The city and police officers' union subsequently sued, saying the charter amendment went against the state collective bargaining guidelines that the city separately argued were unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court issued rulings on both of those matters in late March, striking down Prop B while upholding the provisions of Chapter 174. That means the initial case is being remanded back to a district court for a judge to set the terms of the firefighters' contract with the city as requested by the union in 2017.

It is unclear how the binding arbitration bill might impact a judge's determination in the court case, and also how much more money the city might end up having to pay its firefighters. They could potentially be awarded multiple years' worth of back pay.

Whatever the outcome, Senate Bill 736 appears to provide an expedited path toward getting there. In early April, after the Texas Supreme Court rulings, Lancton said, "The day the firefighters get paid what the law says they're owed, you will see a dramatic shift almost immediately (in department morale)."

"We have to stop treating our firefighters and paramedics the way this administration has done," Lancton said Wednesday. "We look forward to a resolution, and that's what this bill does. It closes the loophole that the city has exploited in suing its own firefighters, using taxpayer dollars for millions of dollars (in legal expenses). And we look forward to a resolution."

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