July 22, 2021
Fire union president Marty Lancton may be getting his job back with the city of Houston after an independent arbitrator on Monday determined that the city had no cause to indefinitely suspend him in January.
The ruling would reinstate Lancton as a city employee on special assignment to lead the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, and would also grant the union president full back pay.
Lancton was suspended earlier this year after Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said he failed to report to work.
“He was absent from work for three or more days,” Peña said. “Essentially AWOL — absent without leave.”
Peña said he asked Lancton to sign an memorandum of understanding, or MOU, after the contract between the city and union expired in 2017. The MOU would allow Lancton to continue working as union president, Peña said.
After the fire chief claimed to have not received the signed document, he moved to suspend Lancton on Jan. 19.
Lancton, however, claims that he did sign — a claim that the independent arbitrator sided with on Monday.
“It’s not what we expected,” Peña said of the ruling. “I believe I was in the right to terminate the employee.”
Lancton has maintained that the suspension was actually an act of retaliation for his criticism of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s response to the ongoing legal battle over pay between the union and the city, which originated after the 2017 contract ended.
“I absolutely believe that this mayor used or attempted to use me as some sort of political message in retaliation,” Lancton said.
The mayor’s office declined requests for comment.
During the years-long pay dispute, the union has asked for a pay increase through a collective bargaining contract, while the city has opposed the idea — instead opting to increase firefighter pay by 18% over the next three years, a measure that city council passed in June.
The union sees the pay increase as a “bonus,” according to Lancton, who has previously pointed to the fact that the pay raise would be covered using temporary federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Earlier this month, the union gained enough signatures to place a charter amendment on the November ballot, which would allow Houston voters to decide whether to force the city and union into arbitration if contract negations continue to stall — meaning a third party would develop a contract that must be accepted by both the city and union.
“It would resolve the contract disputes in 45 days, not in six years,” Lancton said. “We will continue to do the right thing. We will continue to answer the citizens’ calls, but it is the elected politicians that have got to start answering to the public.”