Members of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, the city’s firefighters union, have been working without a contract for more than 10 years, and in all likelihood there won’t be a new one while Mayor LaToya Cantrell remains in office, the union’s president said this week.

The union has not met formally with New Orleans Fire Department leadership to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement in nearly two years, according to a Cantrell spokesman. And union president Aaron Mischler said that informal discussions with administration officials late last year broke down. Mischler said he believes a compromise most likely won’t be found until Cantrell — who is term-limited — is replaced by a new mayor in 2026.

“The next move is we’re going to hopefully wait for the next mayor,” Mischler said. “We’ll try and throw out ideas and I would like to try to get an arbitrator. But they’re not going to bend on any of the sticking points.”

The firefighters union’s last collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2006, under former Mayor Ray Nagin, and expired in 2012, during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s first term. It was under Landrieu that the problems began, Mischler said.

“We never had as many problems except for in the past eight to 10 years,” Mischler said. “That’s when all the problems started. When Landrieu took over, it was just a nonstop shit show. And it’s being carried on in the new administration.”

In an email, Cantrell Press Secretary John Lawson said that while top NOFD officials meet several times per year with the union “regarding current topics and issues,” the two sides “have not met to specifically conduct contract negotiations since August of 2021.” However, Lawson pushed back against Mischler’s claims that the administration was at fault, saying that NOFD officials have contacted the union about resuming negotiations. 

“The response from Local 632 to Fire leadership inquiries regarding contract negotiations have been that they would let us know when they were ready to resume,” he said.

Mischler’s comments represent the second time in recent months that city workers have said the Cantrell administration is creating roadblocks to negotiating union contracts. 

As Verite recently reported, organizers have been fighting to reestablish a union to represent hundreds of employees from other city departments. Those workers voted to form the union in 2011, but it went dormant in 2018 due to a change in national union affiliation. 

Organizers say efforts to revive it have been stymied by the Cantrell administration, by refusing to negotiate a new contract and allowing department policies that stopped union organizers from accessing parts of City Hall. 

“Other than what appears to be a general dislike of unions by the Cantrell administration, I can’t really find a justification as to why we haven’t had collective bargaining agreements,” Councilman JP Morrell told Verite.

The City Council got involved in that dispute and pressured the administration to allow union organizers access to city hall. Councilwoman Helena Moreno worked with an ad hoc group of worker organizers under the banner of New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee to introduce an ordinance that enshrines the rights of city workers to unionize. 

The ordinance would help get exactly what Mischler is calling for — an arbitrator to intervene when negotiations break down. The law would require the mayoral administration to participate in annual union contract negotiations starting July 1. If negotiations are at a standstill by Sept. 1, a labor relations administrator would intervene to mediate. 

“[The ordinance] is designed to prevent exactly what is happening to the firefighters, and what has happened to general city employees as well,” New Orleans Public Library worker and union organizer Lee Abbott said. “We need the administration to negotiate in good faith with our unions.”

The ordinance will likely come up for a council vote in early summer, according to Moreno’s spokesperson. Mischler said he supports it. 

‘I’m trying to get the morale of my guys up’

Mischler became union president in early 2018, around the same time Cantrell was sworn in as mayor. He said firefighter morale in the department was at a low point back then. The union had recently come out of a prolonged dispute with Landrieu over millions in pay the city owed but hadn’t funded. And his administration had not replaced NOFD firefighters who quit or retired, instead cutting those positions from the city budget. 

“Landrieu had cut the department from 812 people down to 500,” Mischler said. “We were short everywhere and just running the department on overtime.”

He said negotiations with the Cantrell administration got off to a slow start, but the union was able to jumpstart the process by refusing to work overtime hours and off-duty details at festivals and sporting events. 

“When we did the overtime and detail boycott going into Mardi Gras 2020, that kind of threw them for a loop,” Mischler said. “They didn’t expect us to have that type of organization or the resolve to get that done. And we were able to get it done. And that’s when they ran back to the negotiating table.”

Cantrell signed a letter of intent with the union in July 2020 committing to work toward a number of requested changes, including higher pay, a better retirement system and a new collective bargaining agreement. 

The Cantrell administration followed through on some of those commitments. The administration also supported the successful attempt to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour, an effort strongly supported by the firefighters union. The department has also risen to 626 employees — less than the department says it needs, but far more than the 500 that were there when Cantrell took office.

“We feel a lot better than we did,” Mischer said.

Mischler said that despite the inability to ink a new union contract, he did not think Cantrell was “anti-union.” And despite saying the union would likely wait until a new mayor is elected, he added that he is “always hopeful” and that it could get done under Cantrell. 

But still, the union has not as yet gotten a new collective bargaining agreement and aren’t currently in talks to negotiate one. And Mischler said the department still suffers from low morale and constant attrition. 

“It is not in debate that we have a tremendous decline in firefighters and people joining the city’s workforce in general,” Morrell said. 

Pay for city employees is handled by an independent agency — the Civil Service Commission — meaning that union contracts with the city don’t include salary terms. But they do include a whole host of policies that affect workers’ quality of life, including disciplinary processes, promotions, days off and job safety. 

Mischler gave an example of one sticking point in the contract negotiations — Mischler wants to do away with a current administration policy that limits firefighters’ ability to trade or cover each others’ shifts. He said that until recently, firefighters were free to trade shifts to facilitate vacations, birthdays, family time or whatever else they wanted to use their time for. 

“I’m trying to get the morale of my guys up,” Mischler said. “If you’re not happy at work, more accidents are going to happen.”

Another recently enacted policy that Mischler wants gone forces firefighters to bring in a doctor’s note every time they take a sick day explaining exactly what their ailment was. 

“I was like, ‘No, I don’t have to tell you that,’ ” Mischler said. “I’m sick.”

These smaller quality of life issues can have a big impact on worker conditions, and in turn on the size and quality of the city’s workforce, according to Mischler and Morrell.

“No city job is compensated where it should be, but we have jobs that are fairly well compensated, they’re competitive,” Morrell said. “And they remain empty because the city has a horrific reputation as an employer.”

Morrell said he thinks the council’s union ordinance will help with the city’s staffing issues.

“It will be interesting to see what happens if and when the ordinance passes, and whether or not it’s allowed to become law without conflict,” Morrell said. 

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...