Houston mayor rejects fire union request to take contract talks to arbitration
The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void
HOUSTON — The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the city, a request the mayor shot down as he called instead for a return to collective bargaining.
The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void. The charter amendment approved by voters last November granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.
Turner made clear Tuesday that he does not intend to accept the union’s request.
"The city of Houston is willing to return to the table for collective bargaining which would be the regular course of business,” the mayor said in a written statement.
Immediately after last week’s ruling, Turner said he would like to negotiate a pay raise for firefighters "that the city can afford,” a call he repeated at his State of the City address Monday.
Fire union President Marty Lancton said the mayor had yet to contact the union about sitting down to negotiate anew. He repeatedly has questioned Turner’s claim that the city could not afford Prop B, and on Tuesday cast doubt on Turner’s willingness to negotiate a “fair raise” for firefighters.
Arbitration, Lancton contended, would resolve the pay dispute before Houston’s 2020 fiscal year starts July 1.
“This is a sensible solution,” Lancton said. “We continue to wait for the call that the mayor says he is willing to make. Let's resolve this now, mayor.”
Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the union “knows how to reach the mayor,” and repeated Turner’s statement that his “door is open and he is ready and willing to meet with the fire union.”
Lancton made the arbitration request in a letter sent to Turner Tuesday.
"Again, recent developments present you with an opportunity to end your political and legal war on Houston firefighter families — and negotiate a firefighter contract in alignment with the will of the 298,000 Prop B voters," he said, referring to the number of Houstonians who voted in favor of the referendum.
The city turned down the union’s request for arbitration in 2017, too, after the firefighters declared an impasse in contract negotiations. Lancton has said Turner could have resolved what has become a years-long pay dispute by simply agreeing to arbitration, which would produce a binding contract.
After Turner rejected arbitration, the city and union in June 2017 entered mediation. The talks were unsuccessful, and the union sued the city later that month, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith.
That lawsuit has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, after a state district judge rejected the city’s argument that a section of Texas’ Local Government Code violates the Texas Constitution by granting a judge discretion over firefighter pay.
The provision in question allows the union to seek a district judge’s ruling if the city “refuses to engage in arbitration.” If the judge finds firefighters are not receiving compensation that meets criteria laid out in the code, the judge can declare what pay would meet those standards, and order the city to “make the affected employees whole as to the employees’ past losses.”
The city has contended that would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers provision. The fire union has said the city’s appeal amounts to an attempt to rule collective bargaining unconstitutional by removing the teeth behind it.
Turner has denied that. Benton sent the Chronicle a court filing from March, in which a lawyer representing Houston wrote that the city “does not contest the constitutionality” of the Local Government Code section that lays out fire and police collective bargaining rights.
Earlier this month, the city and fire union failed to settle the labor dispute during court-ordered mediation. The order was part of the lawsuit in which Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. The judge presiding over the case had hoped the two sides could work out a deal, but a mediator declared an impasse.
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