Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced a proposed salary increase for firefighters after years of legal turmoil between the city and the firefighters union. Turner is offering an 18% pay increase over the next three years. If approved, firefighters would begin to see it in their paychecks in July. The city plans to pay for the bump using federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
It comes on the heels of a state appellate court ruling that found the firefighters have a right to negotiate with the city under state law.
Asked by a Community Impact Newspaper reporter why he was offering the pay raise outside of a collective bargaining agreement with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Turner replied, "because I can do that."
Patrick M. “Marty” Lancton is the president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341. Houston Public Media spoke briefly with Lancton after the mayor’s announcement, to discuss what it means for firefighters going forward.
The below interview has been lightly edited, for clarity.
You heard the mayor’s announcement Wednesday. What was your immediate reaction?
Listen, 14 days after the landmark decision by the 14th Court of Appeals in Texas, the mayor now indicates that he wants to provide firefighters with a bonus from the federal stimulus bill. Houston firefighters appreciate any bonus that is given from the federal stimulus and it is appreciated.
Does this threaten to undermine efforts at collective bargaining?
Well, yes, of course it does. But the Houston firefighters have gone without having a contract — it’s been at an impasse since 2017. Firefighters appreciate any bonus that is given to them. They’ve been on the frontlines of this pandemic. But this absolutely does not address the legal rights of Houston firefighters and the contract that they’re owed, and we certainly hope that the mayor will come back now to the table and settle the outstanding issues that are at an impasse.
You say “bonus,” but the mayor did not seem to frame this as a bonus. He called it a “pay raise.” Is that your reading of this?
Well, you’d have to speak with the mayor. But what I can tell you is that there is a clear defined legal process in which firefighters in the city of Houston can come to a contract. There are 40-plus articles in our contract. There is a clear process that has been outlined by the courts. Period. IAFF Local 341 does not have the legal authority to accept or reject any pay from the city, other than that through the collective bargaining process that has clearly been outlined by the courts.
He’s using the term "raise." This is a bonus. This is from the federal stimulus. Just like the teachers are getting a bonus from the federal stimulus package, this is a bonus. This is not a raise. You can’t ensure, and you can’t say, for three years, there is going to be a raise, because the city is only approving one fiscal year. The only mechanism for you to bind the city and the firefighters to a raise of more than one year is through a collective bargaining contract. The mayor knows this. It’s clearly defined within state law. We have to follow the law, and we’re going to continue to follow the law.
What’s next in this process? Where do you see negotiations going from here?
Well, we certainly hope that the mayor is willing to sit down and to settle the past issues that the Houston firefighters are entitled to by law. And that is what we hope, and we will see. But that’s up to the mayor and what he intends to do. But I don’t think trying to undo the rights given by the citizens under state law is something that the mayor should continue. I don’t know and I haven’t heard anybody say that his position is a good position — that it makes sense — because it doesn’t. At the end of the day, we have talked to the majority of council members who all have admitted that the mayor should stop what he’s doing and should follow the legal process. That, if you’re confused, you can go and read the 34-page opinion from the Court of Appeals on how exactly you have to follow the law and the process to a resolution.
Jen Rice contributed to this report.
Read the court’s 34-page opinion below: