Negotiations between the City of San Antonio and its firefighters union seemed about to break down Tuesday as both sides stood their ground on vastly different health care proposals. But by the end of the meeting, both sides proposed extending contract talks.
City lead negotiator Jeff Londa accused the union of staging a political stunt by ordering Chick-fil-A for lunch and purposefully keeping the rooms where negotiators and City officials were meeting too cold. Tuesday’s meeting was held at the union’s headquarters off Interstate 10 near Wurzbach Road. The negotiation locations have been alternating between law offices at the Weston Centre and union headquarters, with the host organization providing lunch.
“Everything from ordering Chick-fil-A for lunch today, keeping the room super cold – it was a political event, and you’re conducting a political speech now,” Londa said as Ricky J. Poole, the union’s lead negotiator spoke to the media, condemning the City’s handling of negotiations so far. “Get it over with.”
The lunch selection, amid political turmoil regarding City Council’s decision to remove the fast food restaurant from an airport contract, was coincidental, Poole told reporters after the meeting.
“I have no idea what’s going on with the temperature,” Poole said. “… I had Chick-fil-A last night – I didn’t think about the City.”
City staff declined to eat the meal.
Despite the lunch menu, talks scraped by into the afternoon and concluded with an exchange of proposals. The union proposed a 15-day extension for the labor contract negotiations to continue into April. City negotiators asked if the union would consider formal mediation with a former Texas Supreme Court judge and/or delaying talks until until the City will has a clearer picture of what, if any, revenue caps will come out of the state legislative session.
Responses to the proposals are expected later this week. The two sides are fast approaching the 60-day mark since the start of negotiations. Under state law, an automatic impasse is triggered on the 61st day, which would be April 8, after which the two sides could enter mediation or arbitration. The union also could take negotiations to state District Court, where a judge would decide on specific contract terms.
It’s unclear if the union will exercise its right to call an impasse and binding arbitration that it was awarded under Proposition C. The union could have done so on the first day talks began on Feb. 6, but has continued to talk to the City.
Neither side said it is aiming for arbitration, but both indicated they were ready to take that route if needed.
Recent discussions have centered on the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s proposal to carve out firefighter health care from the City’s control and set up a union-operated trust to set its own benefits and premiums for members. The union pointed to trusts in cities in the Pacific Northwest as successful examples.
Londa said the City would not consider a health care trust that the union proposed unless it drastically reduced the cost of health care – far below what the City pays for police officer health care. According to the City’s preliminary research, those trusts cost their respective cities upwards of $24,000 per firefighter per year, Londa said. In San Antonio, the City currently spends more than $19,000 per firefighter and more than $16,000 per police officer.
“Our conclusion is that there’s no reason for a trust,” Londa said, because it’s too expensive, risky, and the union already has effective control of its health care through the collective bargaining process. “We think the employees are better served by having the City [be] responsible for having health care benefits.”
The two negotiation teams met for less than seven minutes at the start of the meeting Tuesday morning before Poole asked to take a break to discuss the City’s position.
“I think we can actually show how we’re going to save the City money by going on the trust,” Poole said. “If your position today is ‘the City is not going to under any circumstances consider a trust’ – I need to know that.”
“We don’t want to do it,” Londa said, but a trust proposal that reduces costs to $11,000, like the one in Fort Worth, could be considered.
“If you present something attractive financially for the City … we’d have to look at that,” he said.
Last week, the City said it would consider something under or similar to what it pays for police ($16,000). On Tuesday, Londa said under $11,000 would be attractive.
That is a “fundamental change,” Poole said, in what the City says it would consider.
Compared to what the City was projected to spend on health care per uniformed employee, a flat $19,000 per firefighter through the trust proposal would be cheaper in the long term, said union negotiation chairman Mark Black.
The union is asking the City to “give us a pile of money and we’ll take care of it,” Londa said, which is a non-starter for city officials, who would want to make sure the funds are structured and managed well for its firefighters.
Poole indicated that there could be some discussion on those specifics, but didn’t get the impression that the City would ever entertain a trust.
If the current negotiation process was to continue, Londa told Poole Tuesday, the meetings would have to be more productive – meaning the two sides would have to talk about specific benefits and premiums in the trust as well as consider the City’s health care proposal that is similar to what the police agreed to in 2016.
Black used numbers from a 2014 report completed by a task force that looked at the rising costs of retirement and health care benefits for uniformed City employees; that report led the City to ask for police and fire employees to start contributing to the cost of health care. He called the figures in the report the “elephant in the room,” because costs have not increased as much as expected.
At the time, those projections were correct, city officials said, but circumstances have changed. For instance, the City switched from United to Blue Cross Blue Shield and saved on health care costs for civilian employees, police, and fire.
The City team said the union was using incorrect numbers to explain the savings it projects, and it estimated that the union’s proposal would cost $18.3 million more than the police health plan in the first two years.
Tuesday was the 10th time the City and fire union have sat down to discuss a new labor contract since talks began two months ago. Negotiations started after years of tense relations, lawsuits, and a divisive proposition election that awarded the union the unilateral right to call for binding arbitration.