Austin firefighters win legal battle over union rights

February 8, 2024

Austin’s Local 975 secures victory in appeals court

In a recent ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals, Austin, TX Local 975, with support from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) General Counsel, emerged victorious against a lawsuit funded by the Goldwater Institute.

This case centered around the constitutionality of contract-protected association time, a provision allowing union representatives paid leave to conduct union business.

The appeals court upheld a lower court’s decision, affirming the legality of association time and its contribution to public service by facilitating positive labor/management relations.

IAFF General President Edward Kelly praised the decision: “The ruling by the Court of Appeals was fair and just.

“The Goldwater Institute is known for its anti-labor activism, seeking to chip away at union rights whenever and wherever it can.

“And that’s why the IAFF jumped into the fight, using our resources to back Local 975, protect workers, and keep Austin safe.”

The importance of association time

The contested association leave provision in Local 975’s contract specifies a pool of 5,600 hours of paid leave for the union’s president and authorized representatives.

This time is dedicated to conducting union-related activities, underscoring the union’s commitment to addressing the needs of its members and the community.

Local 975 President Bob Nicks commented on the significance of the provision: “Local 975 works hard to ensure the needs of its members and the community are met.

“This important mission takes a lot of time and dedication which is why we need the association time.”

Legal challenges and the path to victory

The lawsuit initiated in 2016 by taxpayers Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley, later joined by Roger Borgelt, argued that the provision for association leave violated a state constitutional clause against the transfer of public funds to predominantly private interests.

However, the Travis County judge dismissed the lawsuit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), emphasizing the lawsuit’s baselessness and ordering the plaintiffs to cover Local 975’s legal fees and additional penalties.

The persistence of the plaintiffs led to an appeal, culminating in the favorable decision by the Texas Court of Appeals.

This ruling not only dismissed the claim that association time violated the state constitution but also recognized the public interest served by the firefighters’ collective bargaining and union activities.

IAFF General Counsel Peter Leff highlighted the broader implications of the case: “This politicized attack on union rights, although the first of its kind in Texas, is the continuation of a nationwide anti-union campaign by the Goldwater Institute.

“We must stay vigilant as the Institute might try this in other states.”

The decision underscored the integral role of Local 975 in promoting the Association’s mission, furthering the Department’s mission, and enhancing public safety and efficiency in fire and emergency services.

It also affirmed the union’s role in fostering harmonious labor-management relations.

President Nicks acknowledged the IAFF’s support throughout the legal process: “The IAFF’s legal team has been with us every step of the way, including the hours they spent with us to prepare for the legal proceedings.”

The case has been petitioned for review by the Texas Supreme Court, with Borgelt, Pulliam, Wiley, and the State of Texas seeking further examination.

FSJA Comment

The Texas Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of Austin’s Local 975 represents a noteworthy moment in the ongoing discourse around labor rights and union activities within public sectors.

This ruling not only reaffirms the constitutional legitimacy of association time but also emphasizes the essential role of unions in promoting positive labor-management relations and enhancing public services.

Such legal victories underscore the resilience of labor unions in the face of challenges to their rights and activities, highlighting the broader significance of safeguarding union rights as a means to protect worker interests and contribute to the community’s welfare.

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