Texas court upholds Austin leave provision

February 5 • 2024

Austin, TX Local 975 – with assistance from the IAFF’s General Counsel – won a battle with a group of taxpayers funded by the Goldwater Institute over contract-protected association time in the Texas Court of Appeals.

The three-judge panel in the case upheld a lower court’s decision, which not only said that association time was constitutional but that the association’s business served a public purpose as it facilitates positive labor/management relations between the fire fighters and the City of Austin.

“The ruling by the Court of Appeals was fair and just,” General President Edward Kelly said. “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 association leave provision in Local 975’s contract establishes a pool of 5,600 hours of paid leave for the Local 975 president and other authorized association representatives to use to conduct union business.

“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,” said Local 975 President Bob Nicks. “We were careful to structure our contract language so that we would be compliant with the law. That is why, on two separate occasions, Local 975 has been handed a favorable ruling in court.”

Taxpayers Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley (later joined by Roger Borgelt) originally brought the lawsuit in 2016. They claimed a contract provision for association leave violated a state constitution clause prohibiting the transfer of public funds to predominantly private interests.

Attorneys representing Local 975 initially argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), a statute designed to shield individuals or entities from frivolous lawsuits. The Travis County judge agreed and ordered the plaintiffs to pay Local 975’s legal fees and pay an additional $230,500 to the Austin fire fighters.

The plaintiffs persisted in court, prompting an appeal that culminated in the recent decision by the Texas Court of Appeals. In this latest ruling, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims that association time violated the state constitution’s gift clauses.

“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,” IAFF General Counsel Peter Leff said. “When the Insitute tried a similar action in Arizona, the effort failed thanks, in part, to an amicus brief submitted by the IAFF. We must stay vigilant as the Institute might try this in other states.”

The court also rejected the Goldwater Institute’s anti-union rhetoric, which suggested that labor organizations are not in the city’s interest and add no value to the community. The collective bargaining state statute clearly says fire fighter collective bargaining is in the public interest, the court found.

The decision detailed the many ways that Local 975’s work not only furthers the mission of the Association but also furthers [the Department’s] mission and public purpose of providing safe and efficient fire safety and emergency services.

Additionally, the court agreed that the union facilitates harmonious labor-management relations between the fire fighters and the city administration.

“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,” Nicks said. “We were prepared for every question. And I think that was reflected in the appeals court ruling.”

Borgelt, Pulliam, Wiley, and the State of Texas have petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review the case. The review is pending.