Firefighters and City Can't Strike a Deal

At an impasse yet again over collective bargaining

The AFA (left) and city negotiators at a bargaining session this month

The city and Austin Firefighters Association both admitted they were at impasse on Tuesday at the conclusion of a long bargaining process. Both sides assured the other that they had stretched as far as they could, and still couldn't come to an agreement on wages, overtime, or transferability, a policy that allows firefighters who can't serve on a truck due to a disability to apply for office positions within the Fire Department.

The development comes not as a surprise for two reasons: First, Austin firefighters have reached impasse on contract negotiations multiple times since 2008; second, the two sides started negotiations with different expectations, even though AFA President Bob Nicks confided earlier in the summer that he thought this round of bargaining would be a relatively smooth process with few changes. The city told the AFA multiple times they were looking for a "reset year" in terms of its budget, something interim Labor Relations Offic­er Larry Watts broke down this week: "Our public safety has far outpaced the other major cities in Texas in base pay, and this was a reset year on money. And with Fire, it's also a reset year on what we view as erosion of management rights in the contract, so it made it a more difficult year."

He qualified: "But I would say this: The fire union has made an – I think – sincere attempt to meet us where they could, but in the end we still have three or four issues that are outstanding. That's really no different than it usually is."

A 15-day extension on negotiations represents a last-ditch effort to get a deal done. It's somewhat of a risk on the part of the AFA; City Council has historically adhered to the previous contract language when the two sides stood at impasse. But this is a very different climate, and there's no guarantee this Council will do the same.

The issue surrounding the wage proposal essentially boils down to the city's claim that its firefighters, who earn around $70,000 per year, are paid handsomely enough. That clashes with AFA's position that the cost of living in Austin has gone up exponentially and the city should take that into account with their members' pay. There's also the issue of how the percentages are broken down and into how many years. The AFA would like two out of the next five cycles to be paid out in a 1% lump sum, a mechanism that eventually increases the employee's salary over time. The city started the discussion wanting a 0% increase in the first year, but eventually proposed a one-time, 1% base increase in the first year. The two sides spent Monday evening making counteroffers on the wage package, but couldn't reach a final agreement. Watts said the city wouldn't accept a deal "where it adds more money to the cost of the contract. To do that, all they can get out of it is a half percent in the fifth year."

Opposite him, Nicks said: "I think we truly are at a point where the city has reached their budget, and now it's just a matter of, can we configure it in a manner that the firefighters" will accept.

The overtime issue marked another disconnect. Union negotiators repeatedly tried to use the issue of nonproductive vacation time in exchange for a list of personnel and other changes, including transferability. Under current policy, vacation days count toward overtime kicking in. Someone could take off a Monday and Tuesday, and by that Saturday they're earning overtime – though only some of their hours that week were "productive." The AFA has bargained for the benefit in the past, which would explain why it's not a widely held privilege. The city sees it as essentially an inefficiency in the system and estimates it would save $1 million. The union latched on to that number and tried to leverage it for a package including due process, drug testing and – one of the final sticking points – transferability. No matter how the union presented the deal, or which parts of it they stripped away, the city won't move out of concern it could lead to endless arbitrations. It's another part of the city's desire to regain managerial oversight over the department.

"Transferability is a very important issue to us, and we are really bending on it more than we feel comfortable doing," said Nicks. "And that's kind of why I think it's good we took a pause and signed an extension so everybody can get a good night's rest, think about the deal fresh, and try to figure out in our own heads, is this worth trying to get a contract or should we maybe wait until next time?"

Nicks said the AFA does appreciate how big a change it is for the city to tackle. "It's a departure from what they're used to," he said. "There's a lot of process for them to get there that involves several different departments. Getting three or four departments in the city operating together quickly on an urgent issue is difficult at best, so we're trying to appreciate that and give it a little bit of time to work."

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Austin Firefighters Association, Bob Nicks, Larry Watts

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