Texas city and firefighters’ union in yearslong pay dispute

One of the more difficult tasks that fall to Texas municipal officials is the negotiation of contracts with police and fire unions.

Widespread calls for police reform following the killing last year of George Floyd have complicated often-contentious negotiations with police unions even further.

However, a pay dispute between the city of Houston and its firefighters’ union takes contentious complexities to the next level.

Pay parity approval

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association was jubilant a few days ago when the Texas 14th Court of Appeals ruled that voter-approved Proposition B is constitutional. The proposition was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018. It mandates pay parity between Houston firefighters and city police officers of similar rank.

The city went to court to stop the measure from being implemented, declaring in a press statement that pay parity “would be financially devastating.”  The city says it will continue its appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

Police union opposition, too

Proposition B was also opposed by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which sued successfully in 2018 to stop its implementation, arguing that it violated the state constitution and the state’s Fire and Police Employee Relations Act (FPERA).

With a 2-1 decision, the appeals court rejected both arguments and sent the matter back to the trial court.

Judge Ken Wise wrote in a dissenting opinion that Prop B violates FPERA by linking firefighter pay to police officer pay, rather than making firefighter pay comparable to compensation in the private sector, as required by the statute.

Another proposition

Houston firefighters are currently trying to put another measure on the ballot, this time to require binding arbitration between the union and city. The union says it has more than enough signatures needed. However, the signatures must be verified by Aug. 16 to get the measure on the ballot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said recently that verification could take up to three months – a comment that union head Marty Lancton called “alarming and disturbing.”

More disputes

The city council last month approved – without negotiations – an 18 percent pay increase for firefighters that the city calls a “raise” and the union calls “a bonus.” The boost will be from funds Houston received from the American Rescue Plan, the recent pandemic stimulus from the federal government.

An arbitrator recently ruled that Lancton must be reinstated to his job as a firefighter, where he is assigned to the union by a memorandum of understanding with the city.

Lancton was fired in late 2020 for disciplinary reasons.

The arbitrator found that when Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña terminated the memorandum, he didn’t give Lancton proper notice and thereby violated his due process rights.

He must be reinstated with back pay, the arbitrator ruled.

Few observers believe that the many interwoven disputes will be resolved soon.