(right) Chief negotiator representing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Ricky Poole.
Chief negotiator representing the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association Ricky Poole (right) during the collective bargaining meeting between the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Professional Firefighter's Association on Feb. 19. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Negotiation teams for the City of San Antonio and firefighters union each brought stacks of mostly minor revisions to the labor contract negotiations Friday, though talks concluded without final resolution on those items, pending cost estimates and other implications.

Among the 19 contract articles the City wants to change or remove is one related to the duties of the union president. The current contract outlines his “special assignment” as a full-time union representative responsible for all union activities, but the City proposed removing that article and assigning the president duties related to the fire department.

Attorney Ricky J. Poole, the union’s lead negotiator, said he didn’t think that proposal was legitimate.

“There’s an incredibly important role that a union president plays, and I think historically that position here in San Antonio has been treated as one that requires the full time and devotion of that individual,” Poole said. “I don’t expect that’s going to change.”

Chris Steele, who has been the elected fire union president for 15 years, was paid a salary of $98,827 in 2017. Steele led several attacks on City Hall in recent years, most recently the propositions related to City management and contract negotiations that voters approved in November.

An ongoing lawsuit in Austin brought the issue to the City’s attention, First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio said during negotiations. The lawsuit, filed by two citizens, argues that using taxpayer dollars to pay for union work is unconstitutional.

“If they’re being paid by the City [and] they’re not doing work for the City, somehow that’s improper,”Jeff Londa, lead negotiator for the City, told reporters. “It would be a gift to that person as opposed to payment for work.”

Conservative nonprofits Texas Public Policy Foundation and Goldwater Institute filed the lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of Austin residents Jay Wiley and Mark Pulliam.

But that case is not yet decided, Poole said, and it’s unclear if the case in Austin would set a precedent for San Antonio’s unique union contract.

Poole also cited the example of the Arizona Supreme Court narrowly ruling in 2016 that public employees can be paid public money for union work. Such compensation is legal based on that state’s constitution, according to the Associated Press.

The two sides could trade contract proposals for the more controversial terms of the contract – health care, compensation increases, and expiration date of the next contract – during the next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Union officials said they are waiting for the City to fulfill information requests they need in order to finalize their proposal.

The City’s goal of reining in ballooning health care costs for public safety employees dominated much of the discussion during police union negotiations, which went on for more than two years before a deal was reached in 2016. That new contract saw some police officers pay premiums for dependents, the same outcome the City hopes to achieve during negotiations with the fire union.

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s team proposed 10 changes of its own including increasing holidays (on which firefighters are eligible for more pay if they work) to 14 days from eight days, structure and rules surrounding paid vacation and sick days, and requiring leadership classes for supervisory and leadership positions in the fire department.

Other changes the City proposed pertained to grievance procedures, mandatory wellness and fitness guidelines for employees, and doubling the types of drugs that firefighters will be screened for during random and reasonable suspicion drug tests.

The union team seemed open to the latter, given the increase in synthetic drugs onboard fire and EMS rigs and desire to keep the membership and public safe.

Mark Black, union negotiation chairman, suggested adding illegal steroids to the list.

“[Steroid abuse] can contribute to unnecessary health care costs … [and] long-term health effects, which is part of our retiree health care. It can contribute to disciplinary issues in the field and interactions with the people we serve,” Black said. “You know, somebody with ‘roid rage probably shouldn’t be on a fire rig or an EMS unit.”

That’s not to say the department has an abnormal amount of these problems, Poole said, but “it’s important that the public be protected from that, so that’s an issue that we want to raise.

“…We’re trying to generate a contract that’s good for everyone.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org