The union for Houston Fire Department firefighters has launched a charter amendment petition as it eyes making binding arbitration the solution when the city of Houston and the union are at an impasse in negotiations.
The union—Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association—is seeking 20,000 signatures for its petition, the amount required by the city of Houston to put the item before Houston voters during the November election, the group announced during a June 2 news conference.
When negotiations stall between the union and the city, each must agree to go to binding arbitration, a process where each side submits their argument to an impartial judge, who resolves the issue as they see fit. However, if the city does not agree to go to binding arbitration, the union must file an impasse lawsuit and go through the litigation process. If the petition is successful and voters approve the charter amendment in November, binding arbitration would become compulsory.
“Today, the only path forward is expensive taxpayer-funded litigation that has been driven by this mayor,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, during the news conference. “There’s a better way forward. It’s called arbitration. In this system, a neutral third-party arbitrator can help cost-effectively bring a solution without litigation.”
The city and the union have been battling over labor contracts since at least 2017, when the two entities failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement. Houston firefighters have gone five years without a raise.
The call for binding arbitration comes several weeks after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the city would use funding from the American Rescue Act—a coronavirus relief fund, of which Houston will receive $600 million—to give firefighters an 18% raise over the next three years. Lancton, at the time, said the raise did not resolve the larger issues at hand.
The voter referendum initiative follows efforts by Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, and over 80 Republican and Democratic co-authors of a binding arbitration bill in support of Houston firefighters, according to a June 2 news release from the HPFFA.
“Litigation has been a major waste of taxpayer money, and we need arbitration to resolve not just salary disputes, but other issues like workplace safety, benefits and other workplace grievance procedures,” Perez said during the news conference.
In a statement, Turner opposed binding arbitration, which he said would "put someone who is not elected or accountable to voters in charge of making decisions about employee salaries and benefits."
"Instead, the city is ready to negotiate with the firefighters' union through the regular course of business, which is collective bargaining," Turner said. "That is what we do for HOPE, the municipal employees union, and for the Houston Police Officers Union."
Houston residents can click here to get more information on the petition.