Tell the Houston Mayor to Enter Arbitration with City Firefighters NOW!
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Firefighting is dangerous work.
Houstonians understand and appreciate the risks to life and health that firefighters take, both on the spot at fires, chemical spills, natural disasters and other emergencies and long-term in the form of increased incidents of heart attacks, strokes and cancer because of exposure to toxic substances and overwhelming stress.
Just recently, we mourned the death of Houston Firefighter Kenneth Stavinoha, who suffered a heart attack while on the job. More and more, the Texas Legislature has enacted laws that presume the causes of firefighter deaths are connected to risks that go with the territory.
The people of Texas recognized these special circumstances by enabling firefighters to speak up together and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the city. A contract affords firefighters the ability to support their families and, with similar circumstances for police, provides Houstonians a First Responder force of the highest quality.
At this moment, the system for producing fair contracts is broken. Since 2017, close to 4,000 Houston firefighters represented by the Houston Professional Firefighters Association (HPFFA) Local 341 have worked without a written deal. Because negotiations stalled, the union exercised its right under state law to ask a state judge to declare an impasse and enter into neutral binding arbitration of remaining contract disputes. Take note: State law prevents firefighters from striking, so when negotiations are stuck, arbitration may be the only path to a fair contract.
Instead of agreeing to arbitration, the City chose to pursue a district court ruling that public-sector bargaining is unconstitutional. Such a finding would have major consequences for First Responders across the state, so it is fortunate that District Judge Wesley Ward rejected the City’s argument. The City has appealed.
In response to those developments, the Firefighters asked voters to approve pay parity with police, and Proposition B won overwhelming voter approval. Even as Houston negotiated a phase-in of the provision with Fire Fighters, the city challenged Proposition B and won a ruling from District Judge Tanya Garrison. The Fire Fighters have appealed. Non-binding mediation ordered by an appeals court has not produced results.
The Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Assembly in September unanimously added our name to a petition calling on Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration with firefighters. The petition calls for either a traditional three-member arbitration panel or for Houston to withdraw its legal challenge to public-sector collective bargaining, allowing a state judge to arbitrate the labor dispute.
As a member of the Texas House of Representatives, Mayor Turner voted for the current law that grants firefighters and police collective bargaining rights, with local voter approval. Approximately 28 cities in Texas have collective bargaining for First Responders. The rights conferred in that law highlight our state’s support for police and firefighters and have afforded access to the middle-class for First Responders across the state.
Taxpayers clearly should examine the cost of a fair contract for Houston firefighters. But we also need to ask what the cost would be if the nation’s fourth-largest city does not invest adequately in our fire-fighting force. How many lives are saved and how much property is protected by having the capacity to respond rapidly and expertly to disasters, both of the natural and man-made variety? When Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Depression Imelda visited our city, whose lives were on the line in the rescue operations? Why does poll after poll confirm the respect Americans have for the profession of firefighting? We believe the price of a fair firefighter contract is fundamentally worth it.
Going without a contract can sap quality by persuading Houston firefighters to go elsewhere. That costs big money in the form of training costs and lost experience, and it undermines the infrastructure of our city. Allowing a public-sector collective bargaining dispute to linger this long is bad for Houston in ways we can calculate and in the intangibles.
We have a mechanism to end the impasse and work toward a fair contract for Firefighters. Mayor Turner, it is time to lead and move forward. Neutral arbitrators will sift through all the facts and, in good faith, lay out standards for a contract that firefighters and taxpayers can live with. Our city deserves nothing less.
Ginny Stogner McDavid, President
Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Assembly
2506 Sutherland, Houston, TX 77023
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