Houston city council may raise firefighter pay via ordinance, as union pushes for contract

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City Council on Wednesday is expected to consider an ordinance that would enact 18 percent in raises for firefighters by July 2023, though the fire union said the measure still would not offer assurance of the pay increases they long have sought because Council could amend or repeal the ordinance at any point.

The proposed raise includes a 6 percent pay bump already approved as part of the city’s fiscal 2022 budget, which takes effect Thursday

Under the ordinance up for consideration Wednesday, firefighters also would see their base salaries rise by 6 percent in fiscal 2023 and 2024, meaning first-year firefighters, who currently make $43,528, would earn a $51,842 annual salary by July 2023, according to the city.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the raises in May but has yet to ask city council to approve any pay increases beyond 2022. Since Turner’s announcement, the fire union has continued to call on the mayor to implement the raises through a contract, arguing that is the only way to make them binding for future years.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton reiterated that Tuesday, and again criticized Turner for funding the pay raises through federal stimulus money. The mayor has said it will be up to his successor to find a funding source for the firefighters’ raises once the stimulus money runs out.

“As we have been saying all along, it is nice to have the temporary pay bump, but this money will go away,” Lancton said in a statement. “In the meantime, firefighters are still working without a contract. The law is the law. It does not change simply because someone does not want to follow it.”

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton did not directly respond to an inquiry about whether anything could prevent City Council from amending or repealing the ordinance before fiscal 2024, when the final raises would kick in. She said Turner would prefer to reach an agreement through a new contract, citing a tentative 9 percent raise Turner recently announced for the city’s municipal employees.

“Ideally, the city would implement the pay increase through contract instead of ordinance,” Benton wrote in a statement. “For instance, the HOPE/municipal employees’ contract will be handled separately. But because there is no contract with the firefighters’ union, the city will implement the pay raise through ordinance to ensure the firefighters get a long overdue pay increase.”

Turner has been locked in a pay dispute with the firefighters for most of his tenure, dating back to 2017 when the fire union’s most recent contract lapsed. The mayor has said he is going around the usual negotiation process because the firefighters “elected not to come to the table for collective bargaining,” though union officials have pointed out that Turner has turned down multiple requests to settle the dispute through arbitration, a remedy offered under Texas law governing fire and police labor relations.

Under state law, firefighters may ask a state district judge to set their pay if their public employer declines to settle a contract impasse through arbitration by a third party. The city has argued it is unconstitutional for judges to determine the firefighters’ pay without firmer guidelines for doing so, an argument that was rejected by a state appeals court in May. The city appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court last week.

Richard Carlson, an employment law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, has said he is unaware of anything under state law that prohibits Turner and city council from unilaterally granting the raises outside of collective bargaining.

“In the private sector, which is governed mainly by federal law, it would generally be illegal for the employer to say I don’t care about collective bargaining, I will simply decide to give you a raise, here it is. Because that would undermine the collective bargaining process,” Carlson said. “But these are firefighters who are not governed by federal law. They are governed by state law, which has many fewer regulations of the bargaining process.”

David Van Os, a San Antonio labor attorney who has represented that city’s fire union, said it amounts to “union busting” for Houston to give firefighters pay raises without going through negotiations or other methods of resolving labor disputes prescribed by state law.

“If the city can unilaterally change the wages, then it’s nullifying collective bargaining,” Van Os said. “It’s a union busting tactic to make the union look impotent in the eyes of the employees whom the union represents.”

District A Councilmember Amy Peck, who unsuccessfully proposed to enact the raises through an amendment to the city’s fiscal 2022 budget, said she would support the pay increases Wednesday despite concerns they could be modified down the road.

“I would rather see it go through their contract, which is the way it’s typically been done,” Peck said. “But at the same time, I will vote in favor of this item tomorrow because I want them to get a raise, even if that means something could change later.”

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