They hammered out salaries, vacation time and how big bonuses should be. But they just couldn't agree on who gets to hold the real day-to-day power. The city of Weslaco and the Weslaco Firefighters Association failed this year to reach a collective bargaining agreement due to disputes over the fire department's management. The city commission declared an impasse on negotiations Tuesday, pushing the entities to meet with an arbitrator.
“Maybe 20 percent is what we haven't agreed to, but it's what we call core management rights,” said City Manager Leo Olivares.
Those rights center around who organizes shifts, schedules operations and determines staffing. The city manager and city attorney described those rights as having been slowly ceded from the city to the union since the 1990s. Now, the city wants them back in the hands of the fire chief, a position who answers to Weslaco's elected officials.
“Who's in charge of the department? We think the chief, not the 50 or so men,” Olivares said.
Association President Chris Cuellar said the department would have lost positions he considered important in fire prevention and other areas if the union hadn't retained control of management rights.
The city laid off nearly a dozen firefighters in 2011.
“The reason we don't want to give it up is out of fear for last year, and if they take that out we don't have any protection,” he said. “I told them to their face I don't trust them.”
Olivares sent the union a notice of the impasse this week. That gives the city and association 45 days to select and go between an arbitration panel. The process will likely cost $50,000 to $60,000 to be split between labor and management, City Attorney Ramon Vela estimated.
The two-year collective bargaining agreement between the city and union outlining working conditions should have been finalized before the new fiscal year began Oct. 1, but both parties extended time on the negotiations. The city did complete a bargaining agreement with the police department before the deadline.
Tension has been high between the city and the fire union since Olivares laid off about 11 firefighters last year as part of a citywide effort to reduce personnel and costs by cutting many departments.
The association responded with a prominent billboard on Expressway 83 reading: “Welcome to Weslaco. Home to a Mayor & City Commission who turned their backs on its firefighters.” The billboard remained in place for more than a year before the union removed it recently during negotiations.
Olivares and Vela are confident Texas law is on their side. But Cuellar believes arbitrators will consider the years that the union had controlled those management rights and see why firefighters took odds with the city.
“It comes down to trust, and we still have a bad taste in our mouth from last year,” he said. “We're on the upswing now, and we don't want anything to bring us back.”