Fire union President Chris Steele. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

So what did it cost the firefighters to hold out and break their union’s longstanding tradition of accepting contracts with the City along the lines of what the very strong police union negotiated back in 2016?

What did they leave on the table when three years later they chose to send the contract to binding arbitration under a City Charter provision they persuaded voters to approve? 

Plenty. And it’s hard to see how they ever catch up to the rough pay parity they had with police. Although the hottest controversies were over out-of-control medical benefits, the major loss for the firefighters is in wages. Let’s take it year by year.

The firefighters will shortly receive a lump sum bonus of 5 percent of their total income last year, including overtime pay.

Their first pay raise, however, will not come until Jan. 1 of next year, seven years to the day since they received their last raise. The raise will be for 2 percent. 

By that time, under the contract they won in 2016, police will have received four raises totaling about 11.5 percent compounded. And they will get another 3 percent raise three months later as they begin negotiating a new contract.

That brings the wage differential to 14.8 percent compounded. For a firefighter in mid-career with a base pay at $5,115 a month, that will mean $757 a month less than the police deal would have brought. It’s considerably more when you add the 14.8 percent onto time-and-a-half overtime pay. 

And at that point the police union will be negotiating a new contract. If inflation picks up even modestly they can expect somewhat higher pay raises while the firefighters are stuck with 3 percent in 2022 and then 2.5 percent plus a .5 percent bonus until their contract runs out at the end of 2024. 

Fire union President Chris Steele could argue that the firefighters’ new contract provides for a total of 7 percent in lump-sum bonuses, 5 percent right now, 1 percent in January 2021, and .5 percent in 2023 and 2024. Meanwhile the police received only a 3 percent bonus at the beginning of their contract.

But here’s the thing about those bonuses: They don’t count for anything when raises are calculated. So calculations for the initial raise for next January won’t include this month’s 5 percent bonus, but will be based on 2014 wages. 

Even worse for firefighters, those bonuses don’t count for pension calculations. Pensions are based on the average wages of a firefighter’s three highest-paid years. More than a few veterans have been waiting to retire, encouraged by Steele to expect a large raise in the first year of the contract to make up for going without a raise for so long. In arbitration, the union sought a 14 percent base pay increase the first year. The 2 percent raise they won doesn’t justify the wait. 

Those delayed retirements had a financial impact in another way. In order for a firefighter to be promoted, someone has to retire. There are more than a few firefighters who have lost thousands in raises that would have come with promotions since the last contract expired. 

Firefighters are not stupid. It’s unlikely they are buying what Steele put out at his press conference following the release of the arbitration panel’s ruling – that “The arbitration process worked,” and it was “a big win” for the firefighters. It is likely significant that Steele wasn’t backed by his usual phalanx of union members at his press conference. Standing next to him was only a single retired firefighter, union legislative director Rudy Morales. 

The union spent about $1 million to gather signatures for and pass a charter amendment giving them the power to submit the contract to arbitration. Then the arbitrators’ ruling, which cannot be appealed, not only gave firefighters much less than the union argued for, but even less than the City proposed to pay.

Steele was reelected president of the union last December and has a two-year term. I’ll predict he won’t be negotiating the next contract in five years. I’ll also predict the union won’t send it to arbitration.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.