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April 1st, 2023:

SCOTx rules for city on pay parity, for firefighters on collective bargaining

I’m going to approach this one at first via dueling press releases. First, from the HPFFA:

The Supreme Court of Texas has ruled that the City of Houston violated the state constitution in refusing to honor voter-approved fair pay and benefits protections for Houston firefighters and all other first responders in Texas.

“This is a historic ruling, said Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Patrick M. “Marty” Lanction. “Never before has a local government refused to honor the will of the voters. The treatment our firefighters have endured over the last six years is unforgivable. They have stood strong and courageous in the face of overwhelming political odds. We remain grateful to the court and the voters for continuing to stand by us through this fight.”

In another ruling, the court struck down Houston’s Proposition B pay parity referendum as conflicting with the voter-approved state constitutional amendment guaranteeing firefighters and all other first responders the right to collective bargaining. Today’s court decision upholds the collective bargaining law, which is the only protection available to firefighters and police officers in a state that prohibits first responders from striking when denied fair pay, benefits and working conditions. The ruling compels the city to negotiate a contract with Houston firefighters who have been working without a contract for six years.

In the meantime, the Texas Legislature is considering a bill to require binding arbitration managed by an independent third party selected jointly by firefighters and the City when collective bargaining does not work. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), won approval from the Texas Senate earlier this week. It is designed to prevent the stalemate Houston firefighters have had to deal with under the current mayor from ever happening again. Mayor Sylvester Turner is the only mayor in Houston history to be unable to reach a contract agreement with firefighters.

“Houston firefighters and their families have been well-represented by their union leadership,” said International Association of Fire Fighters President Ed Kelly. “This is a victory for all of labor.”

And from the city, a little while later:

Today, the Texas Supreme Court struck down the so-called Pay-Parity Amendment [Proposition B] that would have required Houston to pay its firefighters the same compensation as its police officers receive even though the jobs, shift structure, training, education, pensions, and virtually all aspects of the two jobs are very different.

The Court held that Proposition B, approved by voters in 2018, was in conflict with Chapter 174 of the Local Government Code [collective bargaining], passed by the Texas Legislature and adopted in 2003 by Houston voters to govern their firefighters’ compensation.

In addition, the Court ruled on the firefighter union’s effort to force the courts to write the union’s contract with Houston under Chapter 174 based upon what they claimed was Houston’s failure to meet the statute’s compensation standards—the same standards the firefighter union sought to change through Prop B.

Although Houston challenged as unconstitutional the provision of Chapter 174 allowing courts essentially to write the parties’ contract, the Court disagreed and sent the case back to the trial court.

Contrary to false representations by the firefighters union today, the City has not been held to have violated the Texas Constitution or any statute, or to have thwarted the will of the people. The case has simply been sent back to the trial court for application of Chapter 174’s standards now that its judicial enforcement provision has been held constitutional.

“This is a huge victory for the City of Houston. I am grateful that the Court has clarified which of the directives the City received from the voters, in approving both Chapter 174 and Proposition B, the City must follow,” said Mayor Turner “It would simply not have been possible for the City to comply with both, and the Court recognized that irreconcilable conflict. Worse, the ruinous financial burden the 2018 amendment would have placed on the City would have resulted in lost programs, services, and in layoffs, including firefighters.

“My hope is that the firefighters union will now forego efforts to try to strong-arm the City into meeting its unreasonable demands and come to the bargaining table in good faith. City officials are still waiting there.”

See here for the background. Honestly, this is about as good a result as the city could have reasonably hoped for, given that their Prop B argument was the much stronger of the two. I don’t have a whole lot to say that I haven’t said before, but I do want to address one point from the Chron story.

The Prop B case centered on whether equal pay with police would conflict with the existing framework to pay firefighters, enshrined in state law and adopted by Houston voters in 2003.

Under that law, the city must pay firefighters substantially equal to their counterparts in the private sector, and the city and the union may collectively bargain to negotiate contracts. The law has a clause that says it “preempts all contrary local ordinances, executive orders, legislation, or rules.”

The police officers’ union and the city both challenged Prop B under that law, saying it conflicted the statute by providing another pay standard. The Supreme Court agreed.

“Finally, we hold that Chapter 174 pre-empts the pay-parity amendment,” Justice Jane Bland wrote in the ruling. “Local law may not supplant Chapter 174’s rule of decision by requiring an inconsistent compensation measurement.”

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341 President Marty Lancton acknowledged the court’s rejection of Prop B, but praised the jurists for upholding collective bargaining, saying it compels the city to negotiate with the union. The union has not reached a new contract during Turner’s tenure.

“This is a historic ruling,” Lancton said. “Never before has a local government refused to honor the will of the voters. The treatment our firefighters have endured over the last six years is unforgivable. … We remain grateful to the court and the voters for continuing to stand by us through this fight.”

I mean sure, but the whole point here was that the local government argued that the voters wanted something illegal. This is basically the same quarrel we’re having now about all of those marijuana reform referenda, both the ones that were ratified in 2022 and the one that is now on the ballot in San Antonio. Local officials are saying that the voters are being asked to support something that cannot be enforced. One can certainly disagree with their interpretation of the law, and one can certainly disagree with their response to these referenda, but the arguments have been made in good faith, in my opinion. And in this case, the argument won the day. The firefighters took a big swing, and now five years later we can definitively say they missed. Better luck to them at the bargaining table.

MLB reaches tentative CBA with minor leaguers


Minor league baseball players and Major League Baseball struck a tentative deal Wednesday on the first collective bargaining agreement between the sides that will more than double player pay and represents the largest-ever gains in the rights of minor leaguers, sources familiar with the agreement told ESPN.

The deal, which will last for five years, comes after a rapid and successful effort last year by minor leaguers to unionize under the umbrella of the Major League Baseball Players Association and follows previous improvements in housing and pay. MLB formally recognized the union upon its formation, paving the way for a negotiation that finalized the deal on the eve of major league Opening Day.

After years of disillusionment among future major leaguers about paltry salaries forcing them to work offseason jobs — and coincidentally on the day a judge approved a $185 million settlement the league will pay players who accused it of violating minimum-wage laws — the parties agreed on a deal that went out to a vote among the union’s rank and file and that will need to be approved by owners, as well, before it is formalized. The agreement could be announced officially as early as Friday, the first day of games in the minor leagues.

The pay increases at each level are significant, according to sources, and will pay players for most of the offseason as well as spring training, including back pay for this season. At each level, the pay structure will see annual minimum salaries go from:

  • Triple-A: $17,500 to $35,800
  • Double-A: $13,800 to $30,250
  • High-A: $11,000 to $27,300
  • Single-A: $11,000 to $26,200
  • Complex league: $4,800 to $19,800

Among those not included in the deal are players at teams’ complexes in the Dominican Republic. The minor league unit of the MLBPA includes only players on teams’ domestic rosters — and players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other foreign countries will still reap the benefits when stateside.

The deal includes the reduction of the maximum Domestic Reserve List, which governs the number of players a team can roster outside of its Dominican Republic complexes, from 180 to 165 starting in 2024. The union had previously fought MLB’s efforts during the lockout last year to reduce the reserve list, which teams had identified as a priority.

Players, meanwhile, emphasized better housing and transportation as a matter of import. Starting in 2024, those at Triple-A and Double-A will receive their own bedroom, and players with spouses and children will receive special accommodations. In rookie ball, Single-A and High-A, teams will provide transportation to stadiums, where they’ll eat meals provided under rules negotiated by a joint clubhouse nutrition committee.

Given that MLB only recognized the MLBPA’s representation of minor leaguers six months ago, this is incredibly quick. The salaries negotiated here still aren’t a lot, but they’re a lot more than they were before, and that’s a big step forward. The players and the league still have to ratify the deal, which everyone expects to happen. I’m genuinely impressed. Kudos all around. Fangraphs has more.

Special ed and the TEA takeover

This part of the reason for the TEA takeover of HISD is less well known and has some adherents among the key stakeholders, but it’s still quite controversial and far from clear that the TEA will do any better.

Many parents of special education students in Houston ISD who feel the school system has failed their children are deeply conflicted over news of the state takeover.

Some who say their children have been denied federally protected rights to an education believe a takeover is long overdue. Others agree accountability is needed, but question whether the Texas Education Agency has the capacity or track record necessary to execute change for the better. Both entities have received intense criticism of their delivery of special education services for decades.

“It’s a tall order to ask a failing TEA special education department to come and rescue a failing HISD special education department,” said Jane Friou, an HISD parent and co-founder of the Houston Special Education Parent Association. “I don’t understand how it’s going to get any better.”

The school system’s special education department’s “significant systemic compliance problems” was cited among the reasons in TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s notice that a state-appointed board of managers will soon lead the district.

“The takeover is happening because our children’s rights are systematically and continuously violated through denial (of services) and the noncompliance of HISD,” said Marifi Escobar, a parent of an HISD ninth grader with multiple disabilities. “I want to see an overhaul of HISD. This seems to be the first time HISD is being held accountable.”

However, some advocates say they anticipate little change to the beleaguered department given that state-appointed conservators have overseen it for years.

“We, as parents, have not seen anything get better since the conservators got here,” said Fiou. “It may have actually gotten worse from a parent perspective. It’s as chaotic as ever and that makes me very concerned for whatever is coming.”

Other education experts say the state agency’s own failures to provide supports to students with disabilities doesn’t bode well for success in the district.

“TEA is the entity that receives funding from the federal government to implement (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and it is supposed to provide technical assistance, monitoring and professional development across the state,” said David DeMathews, associate professor of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational leadership and policy. “TEA has failed miserably doing this job for more than a decade.”


Criticism of TEA’s implementation of special education stems from its artificial cap on the number of students with disabilities who could receive services. The since-removed arbitrary 8.5 percent cap, which was first reported by the Houston Chronicle, led to the denial of services to tens of thousands of children with disabilities in Texas.

In January 2018, the federal Office of Special Education Programs announced it found TEA had failed to ensure all children with disabilities in the state were identified and evaluated. In October 2020, TEA told OSEP  it believed it had completed all the required corrective actions. However, OSEP found the state had made only one of many required changes to its operations.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Education said TEA failed to put into place many of the corrective actions it pledged to make to comply with IDEA and threatened recourse of taking away special education funding. Among the alleged shortcomings was that there was no indication districts in the state were promptly referring children for dyslexia evaluations.

Currently, TEA officials say the agency has “exceeded” the corrective actions laid out by OSEP and has increased the number of students in special education 37.3 percent since 2015.

See here for all my previous blogging on special education, which includes both the many issues at HISD and the many issues with the TEA. I have not had to interact with the special ed system at HISD, but some of my friends have and they very much say that it is a huge hassle. These are educated professional folks with resources to deal with those hassles talking, so you can extrapolate from there for folks who don’t have such resources. If the TEA can make things better here, that’s unequivocally great. There are plenty of reasons to be dubious of that possibility. As I’ve said before, it’s now 100% on them to make it happen. We’ll see.