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Houston Chronicle

Houston Tries to Intimidate Fire Fighters Union

The city fired the union's President & refuses to negotiate with the union

Brian Young's picture
Feb 01, 2021

Since 2017, firefighters in Houston have been negotiating a new contract with the City. Their union, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA) has been pushing for their first raise in a decade and the city has refused to budge. Instead of working with the union, the city has gotten nasty, taking the issue to court and now going after the union's President.

The fight escalated last week when the city decided to fire the union’s President, Marty Lancton, from the fire department. According to the previous union contracts, the HPFFA President is paid a Houston Fire Department (HFD) salary but is assigned full-time union duties. This is a common set up that many unions, including the Houston Police union, negotiate into their contracts. This means that the union President is paid by the city and they retain benefits such as seniority and their pension.

While Lancton was fired on January 19th, the trouble began in December. According to Lancton on December 3rd, 2020, he received his last “paycheck” for $2.88, thousands of dollars less than his normal paycheck. The city then failed to pay him on the next payday. Despite not being paid in more than a month, the Department waited until the 19th of January for HFD Fire Chief Sam Pena to sign a termination letter.

In the letter, Pena claims that Lancton was Absent Without Leave (AWOL) on multiple consecutive days. Pena went on to say in a statement:

"[Firefighter] Lancton was absent without leave beyond 3 consecutive days with no notification to his supervisor. I find that the totality of the evidence discovered in this investigation indicates a blatant disregard for HFD Rules & Regulations... FF Lancton's blatant refusal to comply with a lawful order and flout my authority as Fire Chief will negatively impact my ability to maintain discipline and good order with HFD in furtherance of its mission."

Lancton believes that this action is yet another example of retaliation and wage theft from the department. He says this retaliation began late in the fall when he was reassigned to the Houston Fire Department’s training academy, instead of being assigned union time. The city claims that since there is not a collective bargaining agreement in place and all of the donated time from other firefighters has been used up, the City no longer has an obligation to assign union time. Lancton however said that there was an agreement reached between Pena and the union in 2019 that the union time agreement would continue, although Pena alleges that Lancton never signed the agreement and has since taken it off the table. Lancton denies that the agreement was never signed.

Although Lancton is “suspended without pay,” the civil services term for being fired, he is still the union’s President and told ABC 13 that the city is still contacting him for union duties.

"The city of Houston's political and legal war on Houston firefighters has reached a new low. Nothing this mayor and his politically appointed fire administrator do at this point will deter us from our mission for the city's nearly 4,000 firefighters and paramedics. My duties as president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 are not changing. Our fight for workplace fairness goes on. I imagine we will see the City back in yet another court and we look forward to seeing the sworn testimony of the mayor, the fire chief, the fire department command staff, and others about their latest attack on firefighters and our union."

In a letter to Houston’s Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner last month, IAFF President Harold Schaitberger demanded that the city reinstate Lancton’s pay and called their actions “one of the most anti-union, least worker-friendly, intimidation tactics that one can imagine.”

The politically powerful Texas AFL-CIO also called on the City to come to an equitable solution on both the contract and the Lancton issue.

“We call upon Chief Peña and the Houston Fire Department to withdraw President Lancton’s suspension immediately and reinstate his pay,” said Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation President Lacy Wolf in a joint statement. “Confrontational attacks like this only inflame the ongoing dispute. We also again urge the City of Houston to withdraw its legal challenge to the collective bargaining rights of Houston Firefighters. It is long past time to put this conflict to rest by going to arbitration. The Texas labor movement remains committed to supporting a mutually beneficial solution between the parties. We again offer our assistance in any way that might be helpful in achieving this result.”

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