© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
News

City Of San Antonio And Fire Union End 6 Years Of Contract Dispute With Binding Agreement

Chris-Steele-fire-union-president-PALACIOS-021420.JPG
Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Assoication President Chris Steele speaks to reporters after the agreement was made public.

A six-year stalemate between the City of San Antonio and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is over. A collective bargaining agreement over health care and wages has been decided through binding arbitration.

A panel of three arbitrators delivered a final ruling that both the city and union say leaves San Antonio firefighters among of the best compensated — salary and benefits — in the state. However, the ruling leaves firefighters an evergreen clause that’s cut in half, new health care premiums, and a ten percent pay salary increase and seven percent lump sum payments through 2024. It also leaves the firefighters without five years of back pay.

Fire union president Chris Steele is the face of the union, elected by its members. He was last elected in December before the details of the full contract were known.

At an unexpected press conference on Thursday, Steele said the arbitrators’ decision was the culmination of years of hard work.

“We’re okay with the arbitrator’s ruling. The arbitration process worked,” Steele said.

City Manager Erik Walsh sent a memo to members of the San Antonio City Council on Thursday when the agreement went public.

In it, he details the previous contract cost the city about $260 million annually. With the arbitration award, the city’s costs are increasing by about $22 million over the next five years. The city had proposed a plan to arbitrators that increased the city’s costs by only $9 million over the same time period.

The union’s proposal would have boosted the city’s cost by about $42 million in one year.

The final contract keeps the city’s public safety budget at 66% of the general fund — a threshold the city was unwilling to abandon. Walsh told council members the city had ended its 2019 fiscal year with an additional $11 million. He recommended the city use that money to offset the cost of the contract.

Walsh said he believes the city met every one of its goals with the arbitration decision. Now, he said, the two sides need some time apart.

“One of the things that I said to the arbitration panel was that I was hoping for a longer term deal because that I thought as city manager I thought we needed some time apart from each other,” he said. “It’s been a pretty contentious five or six years, and we’ll need to figure out how to repair that relationship going forward.”

That relationship has been marred by half a decade of disagreements that included lawsuits, court hearings, petition drives, negotiations, mediation, accusations and political action committees.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the contract is a win for firefighters and the city.

“It hits on every single goal that the city was trying to reach during negotiations,” he said. “Obviously, we hoped that this could have been reached sooner and at the table together but we’re thankful that during the arbitration process a fair deal — a good contract — was reached.”

The agreement changes a long standing safety net for the union: an evergreen clause. 

Previously the union had a 10-year clause that left benefits and wages in place after a contract’s expiration until a new one was signed. The union’s contract expired in 2014.

The new evergreen clause awarded by arbitrators is now only five years and health care premiums for union members will increase by ten percent every that a new contract is not signed.

Steele said however, the evergreen clause – which the city had lost multiple court appeals over – no longer matters.

“We’re not worried about the evergreen clause because we have binding arbitration,” Steele said.

But during the evergreen phase, firefighters went without raises. Under the final agreement firefighters will not get any retroactive pay increases — raises they might’ve received during that evergreen time period.

For future wages, firefighters will receive a ten percent increase in wages spread out from now through 2024. They’ll also receive a seven percent lump sum payment spread out over the same time period.

Health care premiums are also changing. The union’s members paid no premiums for themselves and their spouses and children. Under the new deal, the firefighters will still not pay premiums for themselves. Under a consumer driven plan, they will also not pay premiums for dependents. However, under a value plan, they will have to pay premiums for dependents.

Arbitration appeared to be a gamble for the union. It was awarded the powers to invoke arbitration during the 2018 election as a voter approved city charter amendment known as Proposition C.

“With a compensation plan and health care package that protects our members we have accomplished the goals that we targeted with the 2018 charter amendment petitions,” Steele said.

The union also convinced voters to pass Proposition B, which limits the pay and tenure of the city manager.

“We wanted a fair playing field with binding arbitration and we wanted to quantify the opposition to the former city manager’s performance.”

San Antonio’s former City Manager Sheryl Sculley said she believes the arbitrated contract is a win for the taxpayers.

“Our goal from the beginning in 2013 was fair compensation for the firefighters that was affordable to the taxpayers,” she said. “We took on the challenge back in 2013 to change the 25 year old union contract to avoid financial crisis — basically — for the city of San Antonio.”

Sculley was city manager for 13 years before retiring in 2019. Her retirement came shortly after the union won the charter amendments.

During the slated negotiation times in 2014 and 2015, the union never showed up to the bargaining table. It wasn’t until after the 2018 election the union agreed to begin negotiations.

“I’m sorry for the firefighters within the department that they didn’t have the union representatives negotiate sooner because I think they might have done better but for arbitration,” Sculley said.

The union’s new contract began on Thursday and ends in December 2024 – about the same time the union’s previous evergreen clause would have run out of time.

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