San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele holds a folder with his association's seal.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele holds a folder with his association's seal during a meeting in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Questions still linger about the fate of firefighter union’s stalled labor contract negotiations and the City’s leadership days after San Antonio voters approved two of three firefighter union-backed city charter amendments.

The short answer is that nothing changes immediately. City Council first will approve a canvass of the votes on Nov. 15, and then later officially will adopt the amendments.

Proposition B, which earned an overwhelming 59 percent approval, places unprecedented caps on future city manager’s pay and tenure. Voters were nearly split on Prop C, but granted the union unilateral authority to initiate binding arbitration with the city for a new labor contract. It’s been about four years since the union’s contract expired, and during that time the two sides haven’t met across a negotiation table outside of a court-ordered mediation.

Both sides have varying theories on what lies ahead for San Antonio, including speculation on a weaker city management system, continued stalled negotiations, or more legal battles that pit the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and the City against each other. Mayor Ron Nirenberg seemed to leave the latter possibility open when talking to reporters Wednesday, but said later he does not plan to take legal action.

“I’m not going to sue the voters because i don’t agree with their decision,” he said.

Nirenberg also said he would work with the union to put an end to lingering issues related to the lawsuit against the union contract’s 10-year evergreen clause.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg hosts a press conference in the aftermath of two of the three proposed charter amendments passing on election night.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg hosts a press conference after two of three proposed city charter amendments were approved. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The ‘Last Ditch’ Option

Prop C’s approval means the union now can declare when it has reached a deadlock with the city in its contract negotiations, a situation that only could be resolved by a panel of arbitrators. Previous state law required both sides to declare the deadlock after negotiations had started.

According to the charter language outlined in the original petition, each side submits issues for debate and each side selects an arbitrator. Then the union and the City agree on a third arbitrator who will act as the chair of the arbitration board. If the two parties cannot agree on a third person, the American Arbitration Association picks one.

Arbitration is typically private, and the board’s ruling is final.

Arbitration is the “last ditch” option, said Stephen Moody, the union’s sergeant-at-arms and member of its board – and the arbitrators might not give the union the contract it prefers.

“The binding arbitration piece is huge, but my hope is we never have to use it,” Moody told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “Whenever [the City is] ready to come and sit down and make peace, then I’m all for it.”

Both sides say they would prefer a good faith, negotiation process.

“The City would prefer to negotiate a new [collective bargaining agreement] with the union that is fair to the employees and taxpayers and which is approved by the City Council,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said in an email Wednesday. “Outside arbitrators are not accountable to the community or to Council for their financial decisions affecting the City.”

But arbitrators are not just random “out-of-towners” that come into situations and disregard the realities of negotiation, local attorney and former Vote Yes spokesman David Van Os told the Rivard Report last month. “They are professionals … and the American Arbitration Association vets the list of eligible arbiters.”

Throughout arbitration, the board can consider a number of employment conditions, including hazards of employment, cost of living, and “any other factors the Board determines to be relevant to the issues raised by the parties” including impact to taxpayers, to ultimately determine fair compensation and contract terms.

There’s been speculation about what the City and fire union want to get out of the deal. But, Nirenberg said, “I’m not going to negotiate [contract terms] through the media.”

In order to start negotiations in earnest, Moody said, the City first needs to completely drop its lawsuit against the union’s 10-year evergreen clause and then bring comprehensive, transparent records of its financials.

The evergreen clause keeps the terms of the previous contract in place for 10 years, but without pay increases for firefighters. The City lost its request for summary judgment on its lawsuit at the district level and at lower appeals courts. In June, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the City’s final appeal.

“The City considers the evergreen lawsuit concluded but there is still a pending counterclaim from the union,” Segovia said. “We would hope to have a joint motion to the Court dismissing the claims and ending the litigation.”

The City technically still could pursue its case, Moody said, and it looms large over the negotiations.

“You can’t go to the table if you don’t know if your deal’s going to be good in six months,” he said.

Nirenberg said he’s ready to remove that obstacle.

“The public has had enough of overheated posturing from politicians,” Nirenberg said Thursday. “Yesterday, I instructed City Attorney Andy Segovia to send a letter to the fire union’s lawyer proposing a joint motion to dismiss pending lawsuits and counterclaims. I hope the union will agree with that and will also agree to come to the negotiating table so we can reach a deal on a new contract that is equitable to both first responders and taxpayers.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who used to work for the police and fire unions and was the only Council member that supported the firefighters’ propositions, said the responsibility lies solely with City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Nirenberg to drop the lawsuit. A “joint motion” like the mayor suggests is not necessary, Brockhouse said.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks on behalf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks on behalf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association at press conference Thursday. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The City dropped its separate lawsuit against the police union’s contract in 2016 when it agreed to an eight-year clause in that deal.

An Uncertain Path Forward

Sculley and her position as city manager became a union target in part because of her role, alongside then-Mayor Julián Castro in 2013, in trying to negotiate health care costs in the City’s labor agreements with the police and fire unions. The City was able to achieve some headway towards reining in such costs with the police union contract.

“Frankly Sheryl Sculley should have zero role in the negotiations,” Brockhouse said. “You know when that contract got done with [police]? It got done when Sheryl was removed from the discussion.”

The agreement with the police union – after several starts and stops of public negotiation sessions over three years – was ultimately reached behind the scenes because of then-Mayor Ivy Taylor‘s intervention, Brockhouse said. But Nirenberg hasn’t gained the trust of firefighters to do the same and while Brockhouse said he should be part of the process, he probably shouldn’t lead it.

Brockhouse, who already has said he has intentions to run for Mayor, believes he and some Council colleagues or business leaders could start bridging the divide between the City and fire union.

“How do you turn forward and try to repair a relationship, Ron, with the man and the leadership team that you called the enemy of the people?” Brockhouse said. “He needs to recuse himself from it in my opinion and bring in other people, other leaders in this community that are going to sit between both sides and get them scheduling some dates and make that happen.”

The Rivard Report asked Nirenberg if he thought his relationship with the union could recover from such a vitriolic campaign.

“I was talking to firefighters at the polls [on Tuesday] and they are clearly done with this conflict as well,” he said. “They’re ready to turn the page. … We’re ready to move on.”

The City’s attorneys are looking into legal options for potential challenges regarding Prop C, Segovia said, “and will brief Council in the coming weeks.”

However, if the City tries to block it in court, Moody said, that would sidestep the will of the voters.

“I would be disappointed in that,” Moody said.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...