A long-running battle between the city of Houston and the union representing firefighters with the Houston Fire Department took one step toward a resolution Jan. 3.

What happened

Following talks with union leadership, newly elected Houston Mayor John Whitmire said in a news release he directed City Attorney Arturo Michel to have the city withdraw from a lawsuit related to firefighter contract negotiations. Whitmire was elected in a runoff election in December and was sworn into office Jan. 1.

The backstory

The city and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association have been at odds since 2017, when the two groups were unable to reach an agreement in contract negotiations. As a result, Houston firefighters have been working without a contract since that time, though the city has funded several pay raises for firefighters.

Whitmire promised to end the standoff and negotiate with firefighters while campaigning for Houston mayor in 2023. As a state senator, he filed a bill in February with the goal of forcing the city to enter into collective bargaining talks in a process called binding arbitration. Whitmire's bill was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, and the city of Houston challenged it in court.

In December, State District Judge Lauren Reeder upheld the bill, ordering the city and the union to negotiate on back pay and benefits for firefighters dating back to 2018.

"Within the first five minutes of the discussion, Mayor Whitmire directed City Attorney Arturo Michel to withdraw the appeal of the city’s challenge to the court’s consideration of past fiscal years 2018 through 2024 backpay," according to a release from the Whitmire administration.

A separate court case relates to whether the city was adequately following a state law that requires cities to pay firefighters at a rate that is competitive with what firefighters make in the private sector. The Texas Supreme Court dealt a win to the union in March, upholding the state's collective bargaining law and remanding the case back to trial court.

The context

Former Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has warned that binding arbitration would come with a large price tag for the city and would negatively affect the city's credit rating, adding that "it takes the budgeting process away from those who were elected by voters and are accountable to the citizens."

What they're saying

“I want the city to remove itself from the court process as much as possible and focus on resolving this long-standing dispute as fairly and quickly as possible,” Whitmire said in a statement. “I stated repeatedly on the campaign trail and in my inaugural address that our first responders will not have to fear court action during the Whitmire administration. I am following through on that promise.”

“After eight years of acrimony, we are finally headed in the right direction," HPFFA President Patrick “Marty” Lancton said in a statement. "It is hard to express how much it means to Houston firefighters and their families to have a leader who respects them and will follow through on what he says.”

What's next

Whitmire and Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President both directed their lead attorneys to begin meeting immediately until there is agreement on a path forward, according to the release.