Disputes that caused labor contract negotiations between the city and Austin firefighters to collapse Thursday were shaped in part by a federal investigation into whether the Austin Fire Department discriminates against minorities.
City officials said they wanted the authority to change how they hire firefighters before negotiating their next contract with the union so that they would have the flexibility to comply with any directives from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is looking into allegations that the department discriminates against Hispanics and African-Americans.
“If they come down and tell us this is the way we have to do it, we needed the ability in the contract to allow for that,” said Deven Desai, the city’s chief labor relations officer.
But Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said the union couldn’t give the city carte blanche, fearing officials would weaken the department’s hiring standards in hopes of adding more minority uniformed personnel.
The city in April received a letter from an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division announcing a full investigation into whether the Fire Department is engaged in “a pattern or practice of discrimination against Hispanics and African Americans with respect to employment opportunities in sworn positions” in violation of federal law.
Austin Deputy City Manager Mike McDonald said in a statement that month that he was disappointed by the allegation and that the city “maintains a strong, consistent commitment to equal opportunities in all of its employment practices.”
The city has struggled with staffing the department in a way that reflects city demographics for years, and in 2008, Austin firefighters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed labor contract with the city that would have given them pay raises and increased pension contributions while giving the department the leeway to hire more minorities.
Nicks then led a campaign against the agreement the union was negotiating with city officials, saying a proposed provision to let the city develop a hiring process that deviated from any current contract restrictions or civil service laws would lower hiring and training standards.
City and union officials returned to negotiations nine months after firefighters rejected the proposed contract that November and established a hiring process for new cadets in an agreement that expires Sept. 30.
On Friday, both sides said there are no plans to immediately return to negotiations.
Nicks said he hopes to eventually reach an agreement with the city but couldn’t support giving administrators unfettered control of the hiring process, a proposal he said was presented as an ultimatum.
“We’re being extorted by the assistant city manager,” he said.
The impasse won’t jeopardize the current class of cadets — nor will it affect the Fire Department’s quality of service or public safety, city officials stressed — but the fate of candidates in the middle of applying to become firefighters is unclear.
Nicks said that without a contract, the city lacks the legal ground to take on new cadets using the hiring process in place now.
Desai said city attorneys are analyzing the contract and exploring the department’s options.
In the meantime, the department is proceeding with the hiring process as planned, a fire official said, by evaluating the oral interviews in which more than 2,000 candidates participated this week.