City to Firefighters: No More Talks

The AFA asks to resume negotiations – Ott says no

There's still no love lost between City Hall and the Austin Firefighters Association, whose members voted in November to reject a proposed new contract negotiated over the last several months. In response, City Manager Marc Ott concluded the city had met its "statutory obligation" for negotiations (under laws governing meet-and-confer relationships between management and unions) and that he would recommend to the City Council "that we do not engage in negotiations in the near future." In the meantime, employee relations will be governed by state civil service laws, as has been the case since Sept. 30, when the last contract expired.

That's where things stood as of Monday, Dec. 22, when the AFA submitted a lengthy letter to Ott attempting to explain the contract rejection and to "determine what will be required by both the City and Association side to continue the bargaining process and solve the hiring process issues." According to the letter, signed by AFA Secretary-elect Bob Nicks and joined by several other firefighters, the contract rejection reflected the membership belief that it was neither in "the best interests of the members ... [and] not in the interests of the community." The letter says the contract was rejected for "non-monetary reasons" (it would have increased pay and benefits) and more specifically summarizes the differences between the members and the city over the hiring process for new recruits. According to the letter, the members believe the city's hiring process threatens the department's readiness standards, and they charge that the process has occasionally been politicized for some unspecified recruits. The union says it will not agree to changes in the hiring process unless the city commits to "strict enforcement of existing department validated training standards." The letter insists that should negotiations resume, the union "will NOT be asking for more compensation."

Asked for a response, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald said Ott and his staff met with the letter-writers to discuss the matter, but with no intention to resume negotiations. "We don't agree with some of the statements in the letter," said McDonald, "but right now we've got an economic crisis that takes priority. We negotiated in good faith for 7½ months, and we reached a tentative agreement, but the members voted to reject that agreement. We have fulfilled our statutory obligation, and now we have to turn our attention to this economic crisis." McDonald said the negotiations were not, as the union letter charges, conducted in a "hostile and negative tone."

Lack of minority hiring at the Austin Fire Department has been a contentious issue for many years, as the department remains overwhelmingly white and male. The letter complains that the union has been unfairly characterized as "white guys who want no change." McDonald said he believes that charge refers largely to media coverage but that city management does want hiring flexibility to help diversify the department. But he rejected any notion that the city has been or would be "lowering standards." "We have not lowered any standards," McDonald insisted. "In fact, where there was any question, we strengthened the standards."

If negotiations are not resumed, civil service law will govern firefighters' employment through the next fiscal year.


Web Extra

On Monday, Dec. 22, the Austin Firefighters Association submitted a letter to City Manager Marc Ott, defending the union's rejection of the proposed new contract and asking for resumed negotiations. The letter is posted here.]

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

public safety unions, Austin Firefighters Association, Marc Ott, Mike McDonald

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