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City, firefighters reach tentative agreement

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After years of strife, the City of Austin and the Austin Firefighters Association successfully concluded the collective bargaining process Monday.

Last November, City Council agreed to settle a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged discrimination in the Austin Fire Department’s hiring process. When Council voted to accept the consent decree, which allows for federal oversight of that hiring process, AFA was concerned that it would be cut out of the bargaining process. But in February, the new City Council gave AFA a seat at the table, and instructed city management to return to contract negotiations with the union.

Now, several months later, a deal has been struck. If ratified by the AFA membership and approved by City Council, the collective bargaining agreement could finally put the issue to rest.

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks told the Austin Monitor that he was happy with the agreement.

“I’m hoping this ends a chapter of disputes and starts a new chapter where we can work together and create one of the best hiring processes in the nation,” said Nicks. “It’s an almost certainty that it will pass membership vote. I think it will pass overwhelmingly.

“I think we are over a big hump already,” Nicks continued. “Now it’s just a matter of process.”

In particular, Nicks pointed out that under the agreement, AFA becomes a stakeholder and is written into the Consent Decree. In exchange, he said, the union will drop the two appeals challenging the Consent Decree.

The agreement will also allow firefighters to recoup lost wages incurred when they did not receive raises given to all other city employees.

A city spokesperson told the Monitor that the city was reserving comment until after the union has completed its voting process. That process will begin today and conclude Thursday. However, a memo sent out by City Manager Marc Ott does offer some additional information about the agreement.

One major bone of contention has been the hiring of cadets. According to Ott’s memo, under the new agreement, hiring will proceed under the guidelines of the Consent Decree. Though short on details, Ott wrote that “(t)he agreement achieves a balance between the AFA’s desire to provide input in to the Cadet training process while assuring the Fire Chief’s management right to set appropriate training standards.”

“While this is the first step in the process toward a ratified agreement, I am confident in our success based on what I have heard from both sides,” wrote Ott. “Our bargaining team has noted that this proposed agreement represents a win-win-win for our residents, the AFA and our fire department and I agree.”

When he spoke with the Monitor, Nicks highlighted the role that the new City Council played in the agreement.

“All credit really belongs to the Council,” said Nicks. “This new 10-1 Council came in, and one of the first actions it took up was this labor dispute. … They crafted a resolution that I would call very wise policy that directed the city manager to discuss these critical issues of cadet hiring and cadet training with the firefighters’ association.

“Had it not been for that, and that policy decision from Council, we would not be here today,” Nicks continued. “I think they did it in a very measured way, and I think that it worked out well.”

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