The History of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, I.A.F.F. Local 341
Professional Fire Fighters across the nation had begun to organize into unions around the turn of the century. By 1917, more than 50 local unions had been organized. On February 28, 1918, at the International Charter Convention the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) began in Baltimore , chartered by the American Federation of Labor. When the IAFF was founded with 5,400 members, the average annual salary of a top grade Fire Fighter was $1,346.
Houston Fire Fighters were first organized on March 5, 1902, in an effort by Houston Fire Department members to create greater efficiency within the department. The official name of the new organization was the American Federation of Labor No. 9629. There were initially 65 members who sought to create and encourage cooperation and open discussion of ideas to improve the department.
Later that year, the fledgling union would succeed in lobbying city hall for changes in the city’s Charter including needed pension improvements for Fire Fighters and Police Officers and authorization for the city to construct and maintain municipal hospitals and orphanages.
By 1906 financial problems and the administration’s opposition to the union began to take their toll on attendance at union meetings. The by-laws required only seven members to be present at an official meeting, but even that number proved to be difficult and the organization dissolved.
Nationally very few Fire Fighters were protected by civil service and almost all pay and benefits came and went at the whim of local politicians. This practice yielded low morale and little job security. Hiring and promotions in the department were unspecified and all applicants answered to a hiring board. On May 1, 1914, the HFD was placed under the city’s civil service system. Under these new regulations, hiring requirements were standardized, and all personnel took competitive exams for promotion as well as physical, medical, and moral tests.
The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association (HPFFA) became IAFF Local 341 on November 25, 1932 with 25 Fire Fighters. Today, with over 3800 brave and dedicated men and women, the Houston Fire Department is the 3rd largest Fire Department in the Nation along with Local 341 being the 3rd largest Fire Fighter’s Union in the country. Since 1932, twenty-seven (27) Presidents have served over Local 341. From its inception, HPFFA’s goals have remained unchanged: decent wages for members working in a skilled and dangerous profession, creation of a pension tailored to a limited number of working years with annual cost of living adjustments, modern protective clothing and equipment for members, and a minimum manning policy for fire fighting companies, a reduction of the workweek (down to an average of 42 hours), quality medical care, and a fair promotional system.
In 1947, the 50th Texas Legislature enacted an historic law known by its section in the state’s code – 1269m. It gave municipalities the option of governing Police and Fire Fighters under State Civil Service law. On July 22, 1950, Houston voters approved the local option and Houston Fire Fighters and police began to be covered by state civil service rules in October of that year. Politically-motivated transfers and promotions were effectively halted by this legislation. The new law also outlined a career ladder with specific ranks in four divisions: Suppression, Fire Alarm, Fire Prevention, and Motor Repair.
Throughout the 50 years of “1269m,” it has been amended dozens of times to provide improved sick and vacation benefits, educational incentive pay, testing and transfer procedures, assignment pay, grievance and appeal procedures, and an employee’s bill of rights. During most of the 1980’s, the “1269m” provisions (today called Texas Local Government Code 143) were constantly under attack from the city and the Texas Municipal League.
The HPFFA was able to create benchmark legislation through its aggressive political activity and close working relationships with many state legislators. In 1993 Local 341 successfully passed a “Meet and Confer” bill, which allowed the union and the city to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions. The first Contract between the Local and the city was signed in August 1995 and a second in May 1997.
One of the highlights of the “Meet and Confer” agreement was the establishment of the “extra board.” This allowed a specified number of Fire Fighters of all ranks to be called back to duty on a daily basis at less than the overtime rate to fulfill staffing shortages and allow more accrued benefit time to be used by the members. During negotiations in early 1999, Local 341 demanded Fire Fighters and officers be paid overtime pay for overtime hours. The city and Local 341 reached an impasse. The “Meet and Confer” law did not mandate cities and labor organizations to agree on terms and proved itself a “watered down” collective bargaining tool. Without an effective impasse resolution procedure in place, the monies dedicated to the agreement were dispersed to other priorities and demise of “Meet and Confer” began.
In addition to the impending failure of “Meet and Confer” the Local fought a pitched battle with city administrators regarding minimum staffing levels. It would be a bitter sweet victory for the local. The Brown Administration would find its commitment to full staffing only in the shadow of line of duty deaths.
Over the next five years, Local 341 was politically helpless from City Hall’s refusal to bargain in good faith with the union, which included breaking the long standing tradition of base pay parity between the Fire and Police Departments. While Local 341 was experiencing daily staffing shortages and severe morale issues, police officers were enjoying large increases in base and specialty pay, overtime, and pension benefits. Though the State of Texas recognizes the right of public employees to have collective bargaining, the measure must be passed locally in a referendum. Houston Fire Fighters had previously attempted to pass a collective bargaining referendum in the mid 1970’s but were soundly defeated by city voters.
At the March 2003 union meeting, the upcoming legislative package was presented to the membership. A discussion on collective bargaining ensued. A committee was formed to explore the possibility of pursuing a campaign to place Fire Fighter’s collective bargaining before Houston voters. Houston area political analysts informed the committee they believed Houston Fire Fighters commanded a high level of respect and trust from the public and could be successful with their endeavor. The collective bargaining committee began to layout a guideline and format beginning with a campaign to collect the needed 20,000 signatures of registered voters to place the issue on the ballot.
Local 341 members, young and old, their families, and retirees canvassed Houston with block walks. They stood outside the entrances of malls, strip centers, grocery stores and even churches. The campaign was funded by a special dues assessment of $150 per member. By August, over 24,000 signatures were collected and the issue was placed on the November ballot. Though city officials and business leaders spoke against the issue and supported negative ads, nearly two-thirds of the voters supported Local 341 and rewarded Houston Fire Fighters the fundamental right to sit down and bargain wage and benefits, staffing issues, and other working conditions.
On October 12, 2005 history was made again for the organization. The first Collective Bargaining Contract was negotiated between the HPFFA and the City of Houston putting a 26% base pay increase in Fire Fighter’s pockets.
Other Services Courtesy of Local 341
The members of Local 341 have always been known for “taking care of their own.” During the Great Depression, Fire Fighters passed coffee cans around fire stations to raise money for the families of Fire Fighters who died. In 1952, members passed a by-law that established the Relative Assistance Fund (RAF), specifically designated for each member’s beneficiary. Originally set at 50 cents per member, monthly dues increased to $1.00 in 1968 and to $3.00 in 2000. In 1969, a new by-law made it mandatory for all new union members to pay into the Fund. Once a member decided to leave the union for any reason, their membership into the Fund was voided, even if they later rejoined.
In June 1977, the Last Alarm Club was created to assist spouses and dependents of Houston Fire Fighters killed in the line of duty. The Club, which has a state charter, is funded through the generosity of Houston area businesses and citizens, as well as Houston Fire Fighters. The Fund also assists the families of seriously-injured Fire Fighters, allowing them to have their loved ones nearby during their first days in the hospital.
Often, the key to advancement in an organization is a good education, especially a college degree. With an eye toward the future in the late 1960’s, union leaders arranged to have college classes at the Union Hall, emphasizing fire science. Two years later, HPFFA lobbying proved successful when the Legislature passed the College Tuition Bill, exempting Fire Fighters from tuition and lab fees when enrolled in fire science classes at state-supported colleges.
The Houston Community College System (HCCS) soon took over the fire science program and began a program for members interested in earning a two-year Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Degree in Fire Protection Technology. The demand for higher education by employers as well as by Fire Fighters has developed into a Bachelor’s degree programs at the University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Houston at Clear Lake . An Emergency Management Administration Degree at West Texas A & M University is also available on line for the members. A recent opinion from the Texas Attorney General allows any degree program related to fire administration, emergency medical services, and emergency management to be tuition exempt for Texas Fire Fighters.
In the early 1970’s Local 341 became involved with the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association by participating in its annual “Fill the Boot” program. This event soon became very popular across the city. One day collection rates over $100,000 made Local 341 one of the top money-raising IAFF locals in the country. The program was enhanced in 1997 when all four shifts were allowed to participate, each collecting for four hours. Collection amounts of $465,478.91 in 2005 and over $511,000.00 in 2006 have made Local 341 the Number 1 Local in the nation for MDA’s “Fill the Boot”. In the last eleven (11) years, Houston Fire Fighters have collected $3.8 million benefiting Houston area families.
Today, the Houston Fire Department serves over 617 square miles, 2.1 million citizens, with 100 Fire Stations throughout the 4th largest city in the Nation.