The gap between the labor contract proposals of the City of San Antonio and the firefighters union is millions of dollars wide regarding the critical elements of health care, wages, and back pay.
Furthering that gap are the proposed contract term lengths: The union proposed a five-year contract while the City came to the table with a nearly one-year deal because of concerns that the State Legislature may limit the city’s ability to pay for a longer contract by capping property tax revenues.
The two negotiating teams met Friday morning to trade their first proposals aimed at ending a more than four-year stalemate. As expected, it’s nowhere near over.
“It’s a start and we’ll see where it goes from here,” the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s lead negotiator, Ricky J. Poole, told reporters after the meeting. “There’s more discussion to have and I would not prejudge the process at this point.”
Negotiations began in early February, with discussions surrounding ground rules and other less controversial terms. Friday was the first time they talked about compensation and benefits and their large price tags.
Details and costs are still pending further discussion of each proposal, but the fire union suggested a contract that includes 27.5 percent wage increases to make up for the four years firefighters did not receive raises and to cover health care changes, letting the fire union manage its own health care, and a new method for processing workers’ compensation claims.
The City’s nearly one-year contract proposal includes a lump sum payment, often referred to as a signing bonus, for 2 percent of each firefighter’s total annual compensation.
It also proposed a health care plan that includes two options for firefighters similar to those agreed to in the police union’s 2016 contract that would have them start contributing to the cost of health care. Currently, firefighters pay no premiums for their spouses or dependents. The police union was able to negotiate lower premiums for dependents than what was proposed for firefighters on Friday.
Notably, the City’s proposal did not include any back pay or wage increases except for the lump sum.
“This was the first day to discuss economic items, and we’re very far apart,” said Jeff Londa, the City’s lead negotiator. The 27.5 percent increase on top of existing health care costs is “economically a nonstarter” and “we’re not interested in back pay. … The expensive health plan has been in effect during this entire period, since 2014. The City made many requests to negotiate during this time period. The union chose not to. So in our view instead of back pay, they received the expensive health care program.”
The union refused every invitation to negotiate since the City started asking it to in 2013. The union blames former City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s characterization of the contract and a lawsuit, filed by the City in 2014 over the 10-year evergreen clause in the union’s contract, as cause for not coming to the table sooner.
The City and union are “fractured family,” Poole said, adding that he’s confident that City Manager Erik Walsh’s leadership will help ferry in a new era of cooperation.
The union came to the table because Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) urged the union and the City to face the “hard truths” of their relationship, Poole said during his opening remarks.
“We see this as a new opportunity for the City and the firefighters, who represent the citizens of this city, to have a healing process that hopefully results in a new contract,” Poole said.
The union has all but officially endorsed the councilman’s bid for mayor. Brockhouse, a longtime critic of Sculley and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, worked as a political consultant for both public safety unions.
The union’s presentation lasted about an hour and a half, included roughly 70 slides – six for its proposal and the rest for context. The presentation emphasized that the union no longer trusts the City to handle health care for firefighters. That’s because of the rate of workers’ compensation denials for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, Poole said.
He was generally “disappointed” in the City’s initial proposals, he said, but is somewhat “optimistic” the City is willing to at least consider letting the union manage health care and a new, streamlined process for workers’ compensation claims known as alternative dispute resolution.
While the union cited unions that have successfully managed their health care programs, the City noted that there are others that have failed – resulting in expensive debts, bailouts, and loss of health care that is less likely under city-managed plans, Londa said.
The City’s 10-slide contract presentation took about 15 minutes and included other proposals including a 60-day evergreen clause, the elimination of the City’s contribution to a legal fund that pays for non-work-related legal issues for firefighters, and modifications to tuition reimbursement.
It’s possible that the one-year term could be adjusted, Londa said, depending on the Legislature.
“Revenue caps effect how much money the city will take in,” he said of the proposal to cap the City’s revenue at 2.5 percent, down from 8 percent. “We just weren’t comfortable committing beyond the next fiscal year in light of that uncertainty.”
Poole said the union would talk about a one-year proposal and understands the City’s concern and need to find ways to pay for the contract.
“It’s hard to try to anticipate what legislation is going to come out of the Texas Legislature,” Poole said. “I don’t know that you can base a contract on what you think might happen.”
He’s not likely to consider delaying negotiations until the Legislature closes the matter.