By Bob Nicks - Special to the American-Statesman

Originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on September 1, 2013

Labor Day is a holiday dedicated to the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. It seems right that on this day, we review the purpose of Austin civil service law and how this important citizen protection is central to a contentious labor dispute between the Austin Firefighters Association and the city of Austin over the hiring of fire cadets.

Civil service law was first adopted by the citizens of Austin on April 27, 1948. What many no longer realize is that civil service law is as much a protection for the citizens as it is for public safety employees. See this section of the law:

“Sec. 143.001. PURPOSE. The purpose of this chapter is to secure efficient fire and police departments composed of capable personnel who are free from political influence…“
Even in the 1940s, it was known that to have efficient fire and police departments, you would need capable personnel free from political influence. The timeless principle of removing political agendas and cronyism from decisions involving hiring, promotions and discipline is central to promoting efficient fire and police departments. The firefighters association agreed that the fire chief and the city’s chosen vendor, an industrial psychologist hiring professional, have near complete flexibility to develop a hiring process. We fully support the community’s diversity goals, which mirror our own. We only ask that the persons chosen to work alongside us, and to whom we must entrust our lives and yours, be competent to do this complex job.
During the 2010-11 hiring process, the association believed that inappropriate political manipulation of the hiring process had occurred. My impression is that upper city management holds the cynical belief that diversity in the Austin Fire Department cannot be achieved without “gaming” the system in ways that are legally questionable and degrade the quality of applicants in this highly important, highly dangerous job. The association rejects this premise — we believe quality and diversity are not mutually exclusive.

We filed a grievance, and in the ensuing arbitration we learned that the vendor had been pressured to change the originally proposed hiring process that the vendor had used reliably in up to 1,000 different cities. An industrial psychologist retained by the association testified that the changes compelled by the city deprived the process of its ability to predict good firefighters. Due to this discovery as well as other improprieties uncovered during the investigation, an independent arbitrator agreed the city had violated the contract.
Since the arbitrator’s ruling, the association and the fire chief have worked collaboratively on a hiring process to achieve diversity and produce competent candidates. A new vendor was selected by the city, and all of us have high hopes that the vendor’s newly devised process will produce a diverse and qualified class of cadets.

In light of the arbitrator’s ruling, at the bargaining table the city demanded unfettered — and unmonitored — control over the hiring process. When we balked, the city declared an impasse and walked away from negotiations. The law requires good faith bargaining. Do the city’s actions sound like good faith to you?

The city may claim that the association is tying its hands and thus preventing the city from obtaining its diversity goals and compliance with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice rules. The truth is that Austin firefighters have gone to incredible lengths to give the city flexibility to ensure a fair, legal, job-specific hiring process. We ask only to be allowed to monitor the process to ensure that the goals of diversity and competence remain equally important — in the high-stakes job of firefighting, sacrificing one for the other is not prudent.

The dispute taking place this Labor Day is about standing for a fair and equitable process and protecting the citizens’ interests as well as our own. Borrowing from the law Austin voters adopted in 1948, it’s about securing an efficient Fire Department composed of capable personnel who are free from political influence. Firefighting is a dangerous job that not everyone can or should do; when we respond to a call, our lives and yours literally may be on the line. At the same time, the hiring process must be fair to all.
The Austin Firefighters Association will not waver in its commitment to achieve a diverse and representative Fire Department that remains one of the best in the nation. Austin’s citizens deserve and should demand no less. Please ask the city to return to the bargaining table.

Bob Nicks, a battalion chief, is president of the Austin Firefighters Association.

Competency with Diversity