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Whitmire, firefighters reach historic agreement

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(The Center Square) – Within less than two months of being in office, Houston Mayor John Whitmire did what his predecessor could not do: negotiate and resolve a conflict with firefighters.

Whitmire on Thursday fulfilled a campaign promise by announcing the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association had reached a tentative agreement over pay issues dating back to 2017.

“A world-class city like Houston deserves a well-funded fire department to attract and retain talented individuals who are willing to risk their safety for us during our times of need,” Whitmire said. “Houston’s fire department should be at or near the top among the major cities in our state. This agreement resolves a long-festering pay dispute with firefighters, avoids further unnecessary litigation costs, and allows us to move forward together.”

The announcement comes after Whitmire within 72 hours of being sworn in this January, instructed the city attorney to withdraw the city’s appeal to a court ruling in a lawsuit between former Mayor Sylvester Turner and the HPFFA. He also directed the city attorney to drop Turner’s challenge to a law Whitmire sponsored when he was in the state legislature that requires mandatory arbitration for certain municipal fire departments when collective bargaining efforts reach an impasse.

A former state senator of 40 years, Whitmire sponsored SB 736 during the regular legislative session in 2023. It passed with bipartisan support and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law last June. Turner challenged the law as part of his eight-year fight with Houston firefighters, arguing it was unconstitutional.

Last December, state District Judge Lauren Reeder ordered the city and the union to return to contract negotiations, which Turner challenged. Turner also fought a 2018 ballot proposition, Proposition B, which voters passed, requiring pay parity for Houston police officers and firefighters even though their job requirements, hours and conditions are not the same. In 2023, the Texas Supreme Court struck down the proposition, arguing it conflicted with another voter-approved referendum requiring firefighters and first responders the legal right to collective bargaining. The court also upheld SB 736 as constitutional.

The long conflict ended when Whitmire in January said he would begin negotiations with the HPFFA.

“During my campaign, I committed to Houstonians that I would resolve this issue beginning on my first day in office,” Whitmire said on Thursday. Within two months, a tentative agreement was reached.

Whitmire also said he would ask the City Council and all Houstonians to support the agreement once its finalized.

Each side made “important compromises,” he said, in order to reach an agreement on how much money was owed to firefighters after they’ve worked for eight years without a contract.

HPFFA President Patrick M. “Marty” Lancton called the agreement “historic.”

“Mayor Whitmire promised we would get this done by the end of February, and he has kept that promise. In just seven weeks, we have resolved a dispute the previous administration kicked down the road for eight years. It is amazing to witness what happens when leadership is unafraid to do the right thing.”

“To say the last eight years have been an unrelenting nightmare for Houston firefighters, their families and Local 341 is an understatement,” Lancton continued. “This accomplishment marks a significant step toward bringing closure and the start of rebuilding a fire department ravished by the inaction of the previous administration. There are no words to express what it means to be able to put the last eight years behind us.”

Once the agreement is finalized, a subsequent announcement will be made providing more information about the pay mechanism and implementation of it, the mayor’s office said.

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