Day one of labor contract negotiations between the City of San Antonio and firefighters union began Wednesday morning at the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s union hall with relatively amicable exchanges of ground rules, which will ultimately be combined into one definitive document, and logistics for future meetings.
And while things mostly ran smoothly, the two sides did quibble over something that led them to the negotiating table in the first place – Proposition C, which pertains to binding arbitration.
“I was a little bit concerned when the city was questioning the applicability of the arbitration [proposition] that was recently passed,” said union negotiator Ricky J. Poole, an attorney who represented the union in its previous contract negotiations. “We don’t have to worry about that for a few weeks … but if the city is truly taking the position that arbitration amendment doesn’t apply, I think that’s something that needs to be delved into by someone.”
According to state law, negotiations can commence for 60 days with 15-day extensions if both sides agree to them. Proposition C amended the City Charter to allow the fire union to call for binding arbitration, which means the deal would be decided by a panel of professional arbitrators if talks are at an impasse.
“We’re complying with what the voters wanted – which is we are negotiating,” said Jeff Londa, the City’s chief negotiator. “Whether you’re under the charter amendment or under the state law, the same thing is going to happen: you’re going to negotiate and we don’t expect to reach an impasse – we hope we don’t reach an impasse.”
The next time they meet on Feb. 19, likely at a different venue, they will discuss on which “non-controversial” items in the contract they already agree before diving into substantive differences on health care, wages, and other terms. Both sides agreed to provide each other with a draft contract proposal prior to the third meeting on Feb. 22. Two more meetings were scheduled for Feb. 26 and March 5.
The City hopes to move negotiations to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, where the police union negotiations took place from 2014-2016.
The City started requesting negotiations in 2014 – before the current contract expiredin September of that year. When the contract expired, it triggered a 10-year evergreen clause that kept most of the contract’s terms in place without increasing firefighter wages. The City filed a lawsuit two months later along with another suit challenging the same clause in the police union’s contract. When the police and City made a deal in 2016, the City dropped its lawsuit against the police union’s contract, but maintained the fire union case. The fire union declined to negotiate until the City dropped its lawsuit. The Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal on the latter in June 2018.
After voters approved two of three union-backed propositions on Nov. 6, the City dropped that lawsuit later that month, the same day City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced her retirement – adding to the string of perceived wins for the union.
But that evergreen clause might prevent implementation of Proposition C, Londa said. “The courts have said that’s a valid clause, so I think there’s an open question as to how the charter amendment meshes with that.”
That question could be answered by a legal challenge.
“But we don’t think that’s a relevant question right now because we’re negotiating, trying to get [a new contract],” he said. “We have a duty to negotiate.”
The two sides met for court-ordered mediation sessions in 2017 that provided a baseline for discussions, Londa said. Each side has a “good idea” of where they stand in terms of what proposals will look like.
The teams also are working on streamlining the process of sharing statistical information and public data, which union officials say they need for talking points in the negotiations. Most of the union’s 52 requests have to do with health care claims, salaries, and other elements of civilian and uniformed City employees.
“[The process is] just slightly less formal than what you would see with open records requests,” Poole said, describing that process. “Some of this information the city might have a legal reason to object to … but because we are now at the negotiation table, it’s likely information the city is willing to provide to us.”
Assistant City Manager Maria Villagómez said the City would provide information for at least seven items on Wednesday, but there are six the City cannot fulfill. “We don’t have any responsive records to questions,” she said.
The remaining 29 items, she said, are in progress but will be prioritized according to the union’s request.
Poole said he is willing to work with the City on items that will take longer than others.
Click here to download Poole’s letter to the City and list of union information requests.