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City, Firefighters Shake Hands on Tentative Contract

Both sides say they're satisfied with the deal

By Michael King and Wells Dunbar, Fri., Nov. 6, 2009

AFA President Stephen Truesdell
AFA President Stephen Truesdell
Photo by John Anderson

Early Tuesday morning, negotiators for the city of Austin and the Austin Firefighters Association tentatively agreed to a new labor contract, following a couple of months of negotiations and nearly a year of operating under civil service rules after firefighters overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer last fall. The new agreement still needs a ratification vote by union members and formal City Council approval, but negotiators for both sides said Tuesday they are satisfied with it. "We feel like it is a fair deal for the firefighters," said AFA President Stephen Truesdell, "and now we need to take the time to explain [to the members] everything that's included in the contract, because there are some significant changes, particularly with respect to hiring, that we need to make sure the firefighters all understand." Truesdell said that while a few contract details still need to be finalized, he anticipates a ratification vote in three or four weeks.

Larry Watts, the city's labor relations officer, echoed Truesdell's judgment of the overall fairness of the contract and commended the firefighters for "coming in at 8am Monday morning ready to solve the problems, and staying with the process until we did that." He added that while some particular provisions inevitably raised objections from people on either side of the table, "You have to judge a contract as a whole, and on the whole it's a good deal for both sides."

AFA Secretary Bob Nicks likewise called the new agreement "a fair deal," adding that while he had hoped for "a little more" on the financial side, he is "very proud of the hiring system" to be implemented under the contract, based in part on nationwide research instigated by the AFA and joined by the city over the last several months. A major issue for the city has been how to enable more racial diversity in a department that is overwhelmingly white; under the new hiring system, Nicks said, the department should be able to hire "highly qualified applicants, while avoiding adverse impacts."

In contrast to last year's negotiations – marked by tension especially over hiring and promotion issues – this year's sessions were less adversarial. Both sides said they wanted to avoid a repeat of last year's outcome – a tentative agreement that split the AFA's negotiating committee and ended in a rejection from members.

When they rejected last year's contract, firefighters lost a 2% annual raise they would have received, and Nicks said that while "we didn't get all of that back, we probably got about 1.5% of it back" with annual 3% raises over the next three years, beginning in the fall of 2010. "It's not everything we wanted," Nicks said, "but it's not terrible."

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