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Firefighters push for passage of arbitration amendment with Proposition A

Wednesday, March 24, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Most politically involved Austinites are thinking about Proposition B, the camping ban, or Proposition F, which would eliminate the current city manager form of government and create a “strong-mayor” system. But Austin firefighters are hoping voters will pay attention to and support Proposition A, their request for a binding arbitration amendment to the city charter.

Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association Local 975 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, is a strong supporter of Proposition A. His union collected more than 20,000 signatures to put the arbitration proposal on the May 1 ballot.

Under compulsory binding arbitration, either side can call for binding arbitration to resolve differences between the city and firefighters. Proposition A will have no impact on negotiations between the city and either the Austin Police Association or the EMS union. Those organizations will continue to use the current meet-and-confer process.

Nicks explains that during collective bargaining in 2008, 2013 and 2014, negotiators for the city and Austin firefighters reached an impasse that halted negotiations. In 2017, Nicks said the two sides were close to impasse, but firefighters decided to go along with the city’s proposal even though they considered it unfair. In that instance, he said firefighters got a 6.25 percent raise over five years. However, the first year the raise was just 0.25 percent and the second year it was 0.5 percent.

During the years when the two sides walked away from the bargaining table, firefighters got no raise. Although firefighters have a collective bargaining agreement with the city, either side can call a halt to negotiations. That would not be the case under binding arbitration.

According to the Austin Firefighters Association binding arbitration committee report, when negotiations between the city and firefighters came to an impasse, firefighters requested binding arbitration to help resolve the issues. However, the city denied the request.

The report says, “If we are at impasse and unless city management agrees to binding arbitration, which they never do, we stay at impasse; at this point the city’s bargaining obligation is met and the firefighters will be without the benefit of working under a collective bargaining agreement. So, no pay raise, Kelly Day preference (a paid day off) or any other benefits and protections that the firefighters currently enjoy.”

Firefighters say this is a common management tactic. “Management hopes to break the will of the firefighters by withholding pay and benefits for at least one year by driving the firefighters to impasse.”

Nicks explained that in order to reduce bias in selection of the arbitrator, the two sides will receive a list of nine arbitrators from the American Arbitration Association. The two sides will winnow down the list by striking arbitrators until they reach agreement on one. The decision of the arbitrator or arbitrators is final.

Nicks noted that the city of San Antonio and its firefighters “were in a contentious brawl” for seven years before finally submitting their differences to an arbitration panel. Texas Public Radio reported in 2020 that the two sides both claimed victory after an agreement on wages and health care benefits was decided through binding arbitration.

Texas state law recognizes binding arbitration for firefighters under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 174, commonly known as the Fire and Police Collective Bargaining Statute. Austin voters agreed to allow firefighters to engage in collective bargaining by a vote of the citizens in November 2004.

City Manager Spencer Cronk had not yet come to Austin when the two sides last negotiated. The Austin Monitor asked Cronk for his opinion on Proposition A, but did not receive a response. Generally, city management prefers not to have binding arbitration. In San Antonio, citizens voted to put the binding arbitration clause into the city charter despite arguments from business leaders against it.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on Proposition A. The chamber’s board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday, with discussion of the propositions as part of the agenda.

Nicks said firefighters have put together a budget and are working on their messaging about arbitration. He said the February snowstorm and electrical outages slowed down the process, but they will start to advertise soon. “We’re definitely going to run a campaign and try to educate everybody on exactly what it is, and hopefully they’ll support us.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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