City workers gear up for their next contract

Believe it or not, the city has employees who are not with the police or the fire department, and they like earning a decent salary, too.

Houston’s municipal employees union, HOPE AFSCME Local 123, is expected to begin its contract negotiations with the city next week, with union leaders making a pitch to Mayor John Whitmire that civilian workers are just as essential as police officers and firefighters.

The current contract for Houston’s municipal workers will expire this summer. Union president Sonia Rico announced that the two sides will start bargaining for a new deal as early as next Tuesday, although the date is yet to be finalized. The contract will apply to the around 11,000 city workers who are not uniformed officers in the police or fire departments.

Established in 2005, HOPE secured its first labor agreement with the city in 2008 and has negotiated four subsequent contracts since then. Compared to the older, more influential police and firefighters unions, its membership rate is significantly lower at about 30%, Rico told the Chronicle.

Whitmire has repeatedly stated that while nearly all city operations need more investment, his administration will prioritize improving public safety, including boosting the ranks of police and fire personnel.

Rico said that civilian workers are no less important. From 311 operators and library workers to Solid Waste drivers and Public Works crews, their support makes the work of uniformed officers possible, she said.

“Not all heroes drive a fire engine or police car,” Rico, a 311 customer service representative for nearly two decades, told City Council during Tuesday’s public comment. “Without us, the city of Houston simply could not run. We are very much overworked and underpaid at almost every level.”

Whitmire expressed appreciation for HOPE’s input. He said some union members’ reports have made him aware of alleged bullying and toxic behaviors in various city departments.

“I look at you as first responders because we could not be doing what we’re doing right now but for your members and all city employees,” the mayor said at the meeting. “We look forward to sitting down, going to work and being very fair.”

As the story notes, HOPE endorsed Whitmire during the 2023 election, so one would think that the ground is tilled for a negotiation that gives HOPE a raise and still lets the Mayor figure out the financial situation. I mean, we all understand that cutting the budget means either cutting wages and benefits or cutting employees, so that’s a tension that needs to be resolved. We’ll see how it goes.

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