Voters OK collective bargaining option for firefighters

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Texas-side firefighters may continue to pursue collective bargaining with the city, voters decided Tuesday.

With 8,184 votes in favor and 2,491 against, residents elected to allow Texarkana, Texas, Fire Department firefighters to choose an organization to represent them in employment talks. Firefighters will now vote on whether they want representation and if so, who it will be.

Scott Robertson, president of the TTFD union chapter, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 367, said that vote will come in the spring at the earliest. The firefighters almost certainly will choose the union to represent them.

“We are overwhelmed. We felt like we were going to win, but those numbers are humbling,” he said. “We appreciate everything the citizens have done. The support has been great. We’re going to take care of the fire department.”

Firefighters and their supporters have been working since late last summer to get the question on the ballot and then persuade Texas-side residents to vote for collective bargaining.

The first step was circulating a petition to initiate an election on the issue. City Secretary Jennifer Evans certified 546 signatures on the petition, which needed 428 to put the issue on the ballot.

Political consulting firm Murphy Nasica worked with the “for” campaign, which started with a launch event Sept. 10. The company’s other clients have included Gov. Greg Abbott and dozens of other Texas politicians.

The campaign established a social media presence and distributed yard signs. Off-duty firefighters visited voters targeted by Murphy Nasica’s analysis of the electorate, and supporters made phone calls to other residents identified by the firm.

City officials were restricted from advocating for or against the measure because state law prohibits use of public resources in campaigning. But City Manager John Whitson published on the city’s website a fact sheet and presentation pointing out that TTFD firefighters are relatively well-paid without being unionized, among other facts, statistics and graphs.

“We’re ready to get back to work tomorrow. We’re excited that residents took part in the election, and we’re going to make sure all city employees are taken care of,” city Public Information Officer Lisa Thompson said late Tuesday.

The election process was in accordance with state law that dictates how firefighters and police officers can engage in collective bargaining with local governments. Though the law is called the Fire and Police Employees Relations Act, the Texarkana election will apply only to firefighters.

Texas Local Government Code Chapter 174 states firefighters and police “are entitled to organize and bargain collectively with their public employer regarding compensation, hours, and other conditions of employment” and that, with voters’ approval, “A public employer shall recognize an association selected by a majority of the fire fighters as the exclusive bargaining agent.”

Robertson said such an association can be, and in other Texas cities always is, a union. Firefighters formed the local union chapter in October 1933, and about 80 to 85 percent of TTFD employees are members, he said.

Whether firefighters or police officers have representation, it is illegal for them to participate in strikes, work stoppages or work slowdowns.

http://www.texarkanagazette.com/news/texarkana/story/2016/nov/09/voters-ok-collective-bargaining-option-firefighters/648337/