AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a special-called meeting Thursday, Austin City Council members discussed whether a Texas Supreme Court decision out of Houston impacts how Austin moves forward with discussions about how much firefighters should be paid.
“The Texas Supreme Court issued a significant ruling on Friday which relates to the arbitration proceeding currently underway between the City and the Austin Firefighters Association. The arbitration is in recess so that City attorneys can advise Council about the ruling,” a spokesperson for the City of Austin said.
The president of the Austin Firefighters Association, Bob Nicks, expressed frustration about the process in a letter sent to city council members ahead of the special-called meeting.
“I understand the need for the new interim City Manager to get policy direction from the Council on the legal issues raised by the City’s lawyers, and I respect this process to provide that direction to the Manager. Still, the firefighters are rightfully frustrated,” Nicks wrote in his letter to council.
“The last thing I want is for our firefighters to feel any kind of uncertainty regarding the future of the contract negotiations,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said.
The Texas Supreme Court decision looks at the role of city charter in contract arbitration versus the Texas Constitution — specifically, the Fire and Police Employee Relations Act in Local Government Code Chapter 174.
“Chapter 174 is a comprehensive framework that governs collective bargaining for those municipal employers whose voters have adopted it. Chapter 174 forbids strikes and work stoppages. In return, it provides a statutory collective-bargaining process and authorizes judicial remedies when the parties fail to reach a bargain,” the Texas Supreme Court ruling said.
In the end, it ruled that an amendment the City of Houston had at the local level did not align with state law. With a charter amendment guiding the process the city is undertaking with the fire union right now, the question remains: Does the City of Austin have the same issue?
“First, and most obviously, the Houston charter provision is very different from Austin’s charter provision: the Houston provision provided a standard by which compensation must be set; Austin’s charter provision provides a process to resolve collective bargaining impasses,” Nicks wrote.
Houston’s charter provision, passed by voters, set what the city calls a “pay-parity.” According to the Supreme Court ruling, it requires the City of Houston to set firefighter pay at the same pay scale as the police department. That drew a lawsuit from the police union.
“The amendment seeks to require the City to set firefighter compensation commensurate with police officer compensation ‘in a manner and amount that is at least equal and comparable by rank and seniority with the compensation provided City police officers,'” the Supreme Court ruling said.
The City of Austin’s amendment was brought forward by council members in 2022 after the city’s legal team reportedly sent a letter to the AFA stating that they would not “be participating in any binding arbitration process,” Nicks said.
Council passed an amendment, which Nicks cited in his letter:
“The City will participate in binding interest arbitration if the parties reach impasse and will be bound by the arbitrators’ decision unless the Charter amendment is successfully challenged in Court by action brought by the City or otherwise, and any City challenge in court requires approval of Council.”
In Houston, the fire association has been without a contract for five years and has several times landed in court in its attempt to get one.
Nicks asked city council members to direct the city to continue with arbitration so it doesn’t have to do the same.
“Any other recommendation leaves the parties without a way to resolve this dispute outside of the courtroom,” he said.
“I spoke to several firefighters yesterday on the phone who called my office and a lot of them expressed that they want the city and the firefighter association to reach a fair agreement and I believe that we can get there. It may just require some time and a little bit of patience,” Kelly said.