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San Antonio Fire Union Invokes Arbitration After Failed Negotiation With City

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Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
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Fire union general counsel and chief negotiator Ricky Poole at a press conference announcing the arbitration.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and the City of San Antonio will enter binding arbitration after 150 days of failed negotiation over a healthcare and wage contract between the two sides.

The fire union was given the authorization to use binding arbitration under Proposition C, which voters narrowly approved in November last year as part of the union’s three ballot initiatives to amend the city charter.

The City and the union met at the bargaining table at least 19 times since negotiations began in February. The parties eventually agreed to enter mediation on April 17 to “facilitate a more productive dialogue.”

During a press conference called by the union on Tuesday, fire union general counsel and chief negotiator Ricky Poole said he had hoped the union would not need to resort to arbitration. 

“Unfortunately negotiations have not gone in a way that would lead to that contract, and therefore to try to reach the finality that we believe that both sides need it’s now time to arbitrate,” Poole said. 

The union and City have been without an agreed contraction since 2014, when its last collective bargaining agreement expired. The union has been operating under a 10-year evergreen clause that keeps the previous contract in place until 2024. 

The City and union have 45 days to begin the arbitration process. Each will have to pick a separate arbitrator within the next 15 days. Those two arbitrators will select a third to complete a three-arbitrator panel. If a third cannot be selected, methods determined by the American Arbitration Association will be used. 

Arbitration could be a gamble for the fire union. While negotiation between the union and the City officially started in February, they’ve been at odds on wages, healthcare and the length of future evergreen clauses for about five years. Both sides have their preferences, but the decision by the panel of arbitrators will be binding without any changes by the City Council or fire union membership.

“I think arbitration involves risks for both sides. I think that’s really — in a lot of ways — why you do try to negotiate an agreement and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Poole said.  “Going for 150 days through a process is a significant period of time and unfortunately the parties were just too far apart.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg issued a statement saying he was disappointed fire union leaders decided to seek arbitration to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the city.

“Throughout this process, we have sought an agreement that is fair to taxpayers and rank-and-file firefighters,” he said in the statement. “Our goal is unchanged, and I look forward to a fair resolution from the arbitrators.”    

The city is in the middle of 2020 budget process and must approve a new budget in September before the budget goes into effect on October 1. 

In recent years, the City has set its cap for public safety spending for police and fire at 66% of the City’s general fund which has been the City’s argument in keeping provisions of both the police and fire contracts at certain amounts. 

“While we will continue to focus our efforts on developing a budget for Council consideration that meets the City’s needs in light of current fiscal constraints,” said City Manager Erik Walsh. “The Firefighter’s Union elected to pursue arbitration — we will prepare for that process.  We remain committed to reaching a collective bargaining agreement that is fair to our employees and fiscally responsible for our taxpayers.”

The City and San Antonio Police Officers Association came to an agreement on a contract in 2015. Until earlier this year, the City and fire union had never been at the bargaining table together. 

“We still are going to focus on making sure we run through our budget development process,” City attorney Andy Segovia said. “The good news is a lot of the uncertainty we had before, for example, the revenue caps and what other fiscal challenges we had before us, there’s a little bit more definition around that. So at least we know what the parameters are and we will continue to work toward a budget that meets those challenges and meets all the community needs including the need to have a collective bargaining agreement.”

Shortly after Proposition C was passed, the credit rating agency Fitch slightly downgraded the city’s AAA credit rating to AA+ in December citing fears of fiscal uncertainty the arbitration process might cause

Given the 45-day timeline, the arbitration is expected to begin in mid-August. 

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.