The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Putting Out the Fire

Deal between fire chief and union could be a breakthrough

By Michael King, February 13, 2015, News

Last week, the new 10-1 City Council accomplished something that had eluded its predecessors: It brought together Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks in an agreement that – if it holds – could mark a turning point in the city's labor-management relations. The AFD is currently operating under a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree agreed to by the city last year. But under the resolution and related agreement approved by Council last week, the city and the AFA will resume contract negotiations – with a particular eye toward reforming the AFD hiring process. The intention is that within the next 60 days, a contract can be negotiated that will establish a hiring process congenial to both management and labor – while enabling a fall cadet class that fulfills the city's commitment (as the resolution puts it) to "standing for racial equity, for the right of workers to organize and bargain as a union, and for ensuring the safety of the public through a professional fire department."

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar is to be commended for his work on this matter, not only in sponsoring the resolution (approved 11-0) but in acting as intermediary between Kerr and Nicks until the two began talking directly (reportedly right up to their brief joint appearance before Council). Mayor Steve Adler declared he was "ecstatic" to see the fire chief and the union president acting in concert. Now Council is charged with making certain that the working agreement – which requires good faith negotiations on both sides – will indeed result in both the highest hiring standards and sufficient racial diversity to begin making the AFD reflect the demographics of the community it serves.

Outcome Uncertain

That's certainly not a sure thing. Firefighters have been working without a contract since 2009, and a series of negotiations have foundered on the question of hiring procedures, with the firefighters voting to reject contract proposals and the city finally declaring an impasse that led to the DOJ intervention. A year ago it seemed unimaginable that the two sides could return to the table, more likely that they would instead spend several years in litigation. Last May, city management had persuaded the previous Council, on the dais, that any intervention in the consent decree – even a brief delay for further discussion – could bring down federal wrath and an expensive and embarrassing lawsuit.

That renewed threat nearly derailed this latest Council action – initially to "withdraw" the request for proposals from vendors wishing to manage the yet-to-be-designed new hiring procedure. Respond­ing to a feeler from city management, the DOJ informed the city that withdrawing the RFP would be considered a violation of the decree and land the city in court. Last year, that prospect was enough to make five Council members quail and vote to accept the decree. This time, Council amended its resolution – to leave the RFP in place but not hire a vendor until negotiations conclude, for better or worse. It appears, at least, that labor and management entered those negotiations on level ground and with high expectations.

Looking for Equity

We'll soon learn if this rapprochement is a true meeting of the minds or an unsustainable shotgun marriage. The AFA's Nicks told me this week that he's already had to dig in his heels when management attempted to disqualify a group of vendors (not a huge pool, nationally) for "technical" reasons – it's not a minor worry, as among the reasons for the current predicament is that 2012 vendor that managed to botch the timing on the written test, thereby invalidating the results. But Nicks reiterated that he's "very excited" about getting back to the table, and about Council's willingness to determine whether negotiations are proceeding in good faith.

Nicks acknowledged as well the persistent doubts expressed by minority firefighters and applicants over the commitment of the AFA to racial diversity among firefighters. "I understand why they're concerned," he told me, "and why they have that perspective." Accordingly, he said the AFA is specifically reaching out to the African-American Firefighters Associ­a­tion to include it in the bargaining process. "There are two reasons for that," he continued. "Because Council would like to see that, but also – it's the right thing to do. If you want to rebuild trust, you've got to extend yourself." For her part, Chief Kerr – not directly involved in contract negotiations – told me she remains "cautiously optimistic" that all sides are united in desiring what's best for the city.

On management's side, it also remains to be seen if negotiators will be as truly interested in diversifying the department personnel as they are in retaining their dominant control over the hiring process. Once the door is open to union involvement in hiring at AFD, it might well complicate management relationships with the other public safety unions, perhaps even the civilian workforce. Nevertheless, the new Council is to be congratulated that its first major action has served to expand employee rights at the city – subject to its vigilant oversight – and just maybe inaugurate a more just and equitable era at the Austin Fire Department.

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