Houston firefighters will push for a proposed charter amendment requiring binding arbitration rather than litigation in contract disputes with the city of Houston, the fire union announced on Wednesday.
The union is asking for 20,000 signatures by June, which it would then submit to the city to put the measure on the ballot in November. Union President Marty Lancton said about 5,000 people have already signed.
“We know that this is not a partisan issue,” Lancton said. “This is a good sense, common sense solution. We hope and we ask for the support of the citizens.”
It’s part of an ongoing pay dispute between the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, and comes as Mayor Sylvester Turner finalizes what he called a pay raise in the city's upcoming budget.
But even that framing has been disputed on both sides: Turner, who promised an 18% pay raise over three years, could only guarantee one year in the budget, and the raise is set to be paid for by more than $600 million in federal funds. The union, meanwhile, has held that the mayor's offer is a temporary “bonus” — not a raise — because it involves temporary COVID-19 relief funding.
Lancton has argued that any raise must come from collective bargaining.
“The only way to bind the city, and to take care of the firefighters is to do it through a collective bargaining contract,” Lancton said Wednesday. “The mayor knows this. He’s a Harvard-trained attorney.”
In a statement, Turner called the raise in the budget "the first step in implementing" the three-year, 18% raise.
“Binding arbitration is not in the taxpayers’ best interest because it would put someone who is not elected or accountable to voters in charge of making decisions about employee salaries and benefits,” Turner said. “Instead, the city is ready to negotiate with the firefighters’ union through the regular course of business, which is collective bargaining.”
The union and the city are currently in a legal fight over the outstanding contract. In 2018, voters passed Proposition B, a charter amendment that required pay parity between Houston police and firefighters. That amendment was later challenged by the city and the police union, and a state district judge ruled in May 2019 that the proposition was "unconstitutional and void in its entirety."
Since then, the city and the firefighters union have tried and failed to negotiate in mediation, and Mayor Sylvester Turner has fought the union in court for four years. Most recently, the city argued that the union did not previously bargain in good faith, and that parts of the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act — a state law that regulates the collective bargaining rights of municipal unions — were unconstitutional.
Both of those arguments were rejected by a state appellate court.
“I think that you need to look at the track record,” Lancton said. “The city consistently wastes taxpayer funds by fighting in court. And we continually tell people the truth, and it takes this long, and this much taxpayer funds in order to get to the truth that we knew about three years ago.”
A bill in the Texas Legislature that would have similarly required the city to resolve contract disputes through arbitration failed this session. One of the bill’s author’s — state Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston — spoke at the union’s announcement Wednesday, and called the mayor’s offer a “stipend” that comes from the federal government, not the city.
“Litigation has been a major waste of taxpayer money, and we need arbitration to resolve not just salary disputes, but other issues like workplace safety benefits,” Perez said.