By Ciara O'Rourke
This story was updated to include Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr’s reaction.
The Austin Firefighters Association has rejected a labor contract with the city that was proposed after approximately three months of negotiations.
The union and the city have been without a contract since October, after labor contract negotiations to renew the agreement that expired on Sept. 30 broke down over disputes that included how new cadets should be hired.
Union president Bob Nicks said more association members voted on this contract than ever before in the organization’s history.
Of 773 firefighters who voted, 93 percent opposed the contract “and said no to the further erosion of our professional standards,” Nicks said in a statement to union members.
That’s approximately 75 percent of about 1,040 uniformed personnel at the Austin Fire Department.
“Firefighters will not sell their principles for any amount of money and that is what’s called integrity,” he said in the statement. “The safety of the citizens and firefighters of Austin is not for sale, no matter how much pressure the city applies to make us capitulate.
During a budget hearing last month, Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said a little more than $1 million had been marked in the new budget for a 1-percent pay raise for firefighters.
Austin police and Austin-Travis County EMS medics are also poised to receive a 1-percent raise in the upcoming fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1.
Both the police and EMS unions approved contracts with the city last year that included base pay increases of 1.5 percent in year one, 1 percent in years two and three, and 2 percent in year four.
Deven Desai, chief labor relations officer for the city, said it is unfortunate that the union voted against the proposed contract.
“We feel it was a fair deal that kept our firefighters the top paid in the state and the second highest in the nation compared to the benchmark cities,” he said in a statement. “The proposed contract also added significant benefits to our firefighters.”
Desai said the city looks forward to bargaining with the union again next fiscal year to try to agree on a contract, and added that the “great service our firefighters provide” won’t be diminished without one.
Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said in a statement that she was disappointed that the contract didn’t pass, and that every decision she has made since joining the department has been “with the firefighters and citizens uppermost in mind.”
“I am more disappointed that President Nicks has chosen to turn good faith negotiations into a mud-slinging free-for-all,” she said. “I will not stand by while he impugns me, my character, or the character of the almost 1,200 men and women of this department who put their lives on the line every day. That is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”