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.

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2 Responses to SCOTx rules for city on pay parity, for firefighters on collective bargaining

  1. Jason Obriant says:

    Kuff, have you considered that the “argument” was never about the Proposition? The root argument was and still looks to be the lack of good faith negotiations during past collective bargaining meetings. The court’s ruling and “the bill” could prove to be more than Turner or the city can away from…especially when the bill comes due from 6+ years of back pay.

  2. Jonathan Freeman says:

    Jason, isn’t HFD still getting their 18% raises the city voted in not long ago? Since the union lost in court over the parity proposition, it doesn’t seem likely that any back pay is owed or forthcoming. The Mayor is term limited out of office this year so no matter what happens, he won’t have to come up with any answers, right? I’m more interested in how the proposed law by State Senator Whitmire is going to address binding arbitration if the union gets one pick and the city gets a pick, how is the third arbitrator selected since it isn’t in the body of the legislation?

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