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Not all firefighters support pulling RFP

Thursday, February 5, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The president of the Austin African-American Firefighters Association told the Austin Monitor that the city would be making a mistake if it stops the RFP process for a plan to recruit new firefighters and returns to the negotiating table, as set forth in a resolution from City Council Member Greg Casar. The item is on today’s Council agenda.

Blair Campbell, who leads the African-American firefighters group, said he is adamantly opposed to stopping the RFP process and allowing firefighters Local 975 to get back to the negotiating table with the city on the issue of hiring. “There’s a reason the (Department of Justice) said what the DOJ said. There’s a problem,” Campbell said.

On Nov. 7, the U.S. Department of Justice settled a lawsuit with the city over alleged discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics in hiring. In the consent decree, the city agreed to pay up to $780,000 to unsuccessful minority candidates and reserve 12 positions for African-Americans and 18 for Hispanics in future Austin Fire Department firefighter academies. The RFP seeking a vendor to design the hiring process is part of the city’s attempt to live up to that agreement.

This is Campbell’s analogy: “If I’m a wife beater and DOJ says you have to change your ways, and before I go to counseling or anything else I say to my wife, ‘Come back home. I won’t hit you anymore.'”

In a memo to Council on Tuesday, the city’s legal staff expressed concern about interrupting the RFP process and resuming negotiations with the firefighters. Although he did not obtain a copy of the memo, Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks heard about it from one or more Council members. He sent an email to Council on Wednesday criticizing the legal staff. He wrote, “These sort of legalistic tactics have been a common way for city staff to manipulate past councils” and urged it to move forward with the resolution.

Casar, who has more than enough co-sponsors to pass the resolution, said he was trying to reconcile two values: racial diversity and workers’ right to bargain. While the city’s legal staff may believe that rejecting RFP means violating the consent decree, Casar argues that abiding by the consent decree doesn’t necessarily mean removing the firefighters from the hiring process, but that if the firefighters association is involved in hiring, the city will end up with a racially discriminatory process. He said, “My resolution is an attempt to set as a baseline for negotiations that we are going to uphold the civil rights law by letter and spirit.”

Casar notes that city staff has expressed concern about the possibility of completing the hiring process within the timeframe set forth by the Justice Department. He said he was going to work on the language of the resolution and possibly add some restrictions to make sure the hiring gets done within the Justice Department’s time frame. “I won’t support any resolution that will not comply with the consent decree,” he concluded.

Nicks said he believes that the firefighters and the city’s negotiators can reach agreement on a new contract, including hiring provisions, within 45 days. He said he is willing to make a commitment that negotiations would be done within 60 days, starting on Feb. 23.

Casar said, “The earliest we can hire folks is early to mid-October.” If things are going well, he said, between the city and the Justice Department there would be a “fairness hearing” at the earliest in early October. The federal judge at that hearing would determine whether the process Austin has come up with is fair to minorities attempting to join the fire department.

Casar said he is working with the Purchasing Department to determine what a reasonable amount of time would be for design of the new process.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, one of the resolution’s many co-sponsors, said, “I do support the firefighters’ role in setting standards, and I do support that being addressed in our negotiation process.”

Kitchen added that city management and the firefighters union need to learn to work together. “These years of this kind of stuff going on, we need to get past that. Because we all share the goal of having a diverse workforce. It’s a non-negotiable goal for the city. So we need to get back on the same page and marching toward that goal.”

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