Doors to a meeting room inside City Hall opened at 10 a.m. Tuesday for the City of San Antonio’s contract negotiations with the fire union. City attorneys and a deputy city manager sat at a large table with documents and laptops at the ready as reporters filed in to set up and take photos of empty seats reserved for the fire union’s negotiating team.
Officials with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association did not show – and, largely, were not expected to. The union has said for years it will not negotiate while the City continues to challenge its contract in court. About five minutes later, Jeff Coyle, the City’s government and public affairs director, initiated a press conference that outlined the City’s 10th invitation to negotiate with the fire union since February 2014.
“We are very disappointed that the union did not show this morning,” Coyle said. “Unfortunately the union continues to be unwilling to simply sit down at the table with us and begin a conversation about a new contract.”
The union’s collective bargaining agreement expired on Sept. 30, 2014, but a so-called “evergreen clause” keeps it in place for 10 years, though without regular pay increases. It also sustains the contract’s healthcare terms, which means firefighters and their dependents pay no premiums – the main issue the City wants to address in negotiations in order to reign in ballooning costs, Coyle said.
“It’s their members [firefighters] who have gone three-and-a-half years now without a pay raise and our taxpayers [who] continue to fund their unsustainable healthcare plan who lose here,” he said.
That evergreen clause is the subject of a lawsuit the City filed in November 2014 that was backed by City Council.
“Just drop the lawsuit,” wrote Ricky Poole, the fire union’s attorney, in a letter sent to City Attorney Andy Segovia Tuesday as a formal response to the City’s invitation. “Otherwise, the City’s media events and hollow invitation will lead neither party any closer to what should be the goal for both sides; a fair and equitable contract for San Antonio’s fire fighters [sic].”
Contract negotiations are open to the public, but the fire union wants to negotiate in closed-door, binding arbitration sessions on their terms, which are outlined as part of three petitions the union is circulating for citizen signatures that would cap future city managers’ pay and tenure, make it easier to get issues on municipal ballots, and let voters decide on utility rate increases, among other things.
“The Union’s conditional response should not come as a surprise to the City Manager and Mr. Nirenberg,” Poole wrote. “The City Manager’s poor decision to choose frivolous litigation over mutual negotiation has not only cost the citizens of San Antonio more than a million dollars in outside attorney’s fees and been rejected by every court that has heard the matter to date, it has also prevented the parties from reaching a new contract.”
This standoff is similar to the one the police union and City found themselves in when they were in negotiations three years ago. The San Antonio Police Officers Association refused to negotiate until the City dropped its separate lawsuit against the police union contract’s evergreen clause. Following closed-door arbitration, a new contract was approved in 2016 to include an eight-year evergreen clause and an optional healthcare plan that has some dependents paying premiums. The City dropped the lawsuit against the police union’s evergreen clause when the agreement was reached.
“The lawsuit is not an excuse,” Coyle said. “The lawsuit was filed after many months of the fire union refusing to come to the table. The lawsuit was filed after the contract expired. … The lawsuit was filed because they would not come to the table.”
The Bexar County District Court and Fourth Court of Appeals sided with the fire union and agreed that the evergreen clause does not violate the state constitution, but the City has appealed its case to the Texas Supreme Court. The state’s highest court signaled interest in taking up the case when it asked for briefs from each side in December 2017, but it is unknown if the case will be heard.
“The Texas Supreme Court is not likely to rule on the constitutionality of the evergreen clause for at least a year,” Coyle said, “so there’s plenty of time for us to sit down at that table and work out a solution. There’s nothing that prevents us from doing that.
“But the fire union knows that it has the evergreen clause to fall back on – so if there is anything that is preventing a good-faith negotiation here, it is the evergreen clause.”
The City will continue to schedule public negotiation meetings like the one held Tuesday, Coyle said.
The fire union will not attend any of these meetings until the lawsuit is dropped, its President Chris Steele told reporters at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
“If they drop the lawsuit we will be at the table within seven days,” Steele said, later adding that he would agree to meet the day after the City drops it. “What we thought was going to happen when the mayor did his theatrics [and asked the union to come negotiate] … We thought we were going to see a letter from the court saying the lawsuit was dropped … We would have been at the table today.”
Fire union and City officials have met several times to talk about the contract, but that was part of court-ordered mediation in early 2017. Those efforts were unsuccessful. Talks broke down when the union left the table and the mediator declared an impasse on April 3, 2017.
The fire union proposed taking over management of member health care if the City agreed to “cut a check” for $35 million for it each year, Steele said, adding that the fire union would assume any additional costs.
Steele on Tuesday did not mention that the union also asked for a 10 percent increase to that check every year.
“In exchange for firefighters contributing to the cost of their healthcare for the first time ever, the City offered a 12 percent pay increase over five years,” a City news release stated. “The union rejected the City’s proposals and continued to counter with proposals that, in aggregate, were more costly than the recently completed police contract.”
Asked if the fire union would accept the same terms the police union agreed to, Steele said, “My members would not have voted for that deal.”
The City is open to another round of mediation, Coyle said, but the terms of those talks can’t be stacked in the union’s favor as it proposes in the petition. The terms would need to be agreed upon during a negotiation session – which the union won’t show up for until the lawsuit is dropped.
Steele launched the “San Antonio First” petition campaign in February. One of the three petitions would give the fire union unilateral authority over the contract negotiations; another would make it easier for citizens to put proposed ordinances – including those regarding utility rates and other City finances – to a public vote by requiring less signatures and allowing petitioners more time to collect them; and the third would cap the city manager’s salary to 10 times what the lowest paid full-time City employee makes and give the appointed position an eight-year term limit.
The City’s lowest paid full-time employee earns $29,640, according to City officials. If the firefighters get enough signatures and voters approve the referendum, then a future city manager’s salary would be capped at $296,400.
Sculley’s base salary for 2018 is $450,000. Her pay is the third-highest among municipal employees, with the heads of CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System topping that list. The City is in the process of developing its first-ever formalized review metrics for the city manager.
The petitions have nothing to do with disagreements over the union’s contract, Steele said. “This is not retaliation, this is a citizen [initiative].”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg has said the changes, if enacted, would be “terrible” for the city and impair its ability to function. Earlier this month, he stood in front of a large, digital counter that displayed the amount of time that has passed since the union’s contract expired – 1,254 days at the time. City Manager Sheryl Sculley called the San Antonio First petition “more gamesmanship” from the union.
“Standing behind a big clock and holding fake meetings that no one’s going to attend” isn’t helping the situation, said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6). “Leading by shaming … I think that’s just bad business.”
Prior to being elected to City Council in June 2017, Brockhouse worked as a political consultant for the police and fire unions. He has called for the City to drop its lawsuit before and after taking office.
“[Nirenberg is] accusing them of the exact same game-playing that he’s playing himself,” Brockhouse said, and these “goofy press conferences” are actually hurting the City’s case. “Their tactics are raising the profile of the firefighters’ cause.”
Steele said combatting “corruption” at City Hall is at the core of the petitions.
“There’s a lot more to this than just a contract,” Brockhouse said.
A petitions to change the City’s charter requires 20,000 resident signatures within a 180-day period. If the fire union reaches that threshold, voters will see the petition language on the ballot during the next general election. Steele did not provide a running total acquired as of Tuesday.
“Getting the signatures is a done deal,” Brockhouse said. “If they haven’t gotten them yet, they will. … People are sick of City Hall.”