(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele.
(From left) Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Shortly after San Antonio firefighters began being briefed Friday on a one-page outline of the contract they would be getting after holding out for nearly six years since their last contract expired, a brutal and profane meme began circulating among them by text message. A photo of the union’s bitter enemy, former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, was next to a photo of union President Chris Steele. 

The image has Sculley saying, “Checkmate m———–.”

Steele’s response: “Wait I thought we were playing checkers!” “S—.”

The sly reference was to a 2018 quote from political consultant Laura Barberena in a San Antonio Current profile of Sculley: “She’s playing three-dimensional chess while everybody else is playing checkers.”

The source of the meme is unclear, but if a firefighter created it he had good reason. Steele had led the union in spending nearly $1 million in union funds to put on the ballot and pass two amendments to the City charter. One, with Sculley as its clear target, had capped the annual salary of the city manager at considerably less than Sculley was making. It didn’t actually affect her salary, but she announced her retirement less than a month after the amendment passed.

The second charter amendment was to give the union the right to end negotiations at any time and put the contract in the hands of a panel of arbitrators, which the union did last summer. After weeks of hearing from both sides and discussing the matter, the three-member arbitration panel has reached a decision, and it is bad news for the firefighters.

Firefighters will not only receive far less than they sought, they will receive less than what San Antonio’s police union won when it signed its contract four years ago. Since at least 1988, firefighters have been given “me too” contracts, essentially the same as what the powerful police union won. Sculley opposed that this time and was not pleased with the contract given the police union. But then-Mayor Ivy Taylor pressed City Council to end the stalemate and likely would have supported giving the fire union something similar. 

A story by the San Antonio Express-News on Saturday presented the scope of the defeat for the firefighters’ union. It was based on a one-page memo that ostensibly outlines terms of the contract. I’ve obtained a copy of the memo. Though its terms are subject to last-minute tweaking as the language of the contract is finalized, I’ve confirmed from several well-placed sources that it is a fair representation. The full contract is expected to be released imminently, as early as Tuesday.

If its details hold, the firefighters will get the same health benefits the police did, better than non-uniformed city staff but not as generous as in previous contracts. Members of both unions will choose between paying health insurance premiums for the first time for themselves and their dependents or continuing to pay no premiums and facing higher deductibles.

As for pay, the firefighters had proposed a contract that would last only until October with a 14 percent immediate pay raise plus a signing bonus. The 14 percent would help make up for the annual raises the firefighters had foregone during six years without a contract. They would then seek more raises in October.

The city proposed a 2.5-year contract, with a one-time bonus immediately and raises of 3 percent on Oct. 1 this year and again in 2021.

The arbitrators are considering a five-year contract with a 5 percent lump sum this year and raises of 2 percent next year, 3 percent in 2022, and 2.5 percent in the last two years. A 1 percent bonus would be paid next year with 0.5 percent bonuses in 2023 and 2024. These bonuses will not be part of the base pay on which raises will be calculated.

Former Judge John Specia, the lead arbitrator selected by the City’s chosen arbitrator and the union’s arbitrator, was quoted in the Rivard Report last month as saying during a hearing that the sides should consider a longer term contract in order to have time “to rebuild [your] relationship, rebuild trust.” 

The total of 10 percent (plus compounding) raises the firefighters will receive over the five years is barely more than two-thirds of the 14 percent the police union won. 

Then there was the “evergreen clause.” It’s the provision that has enabled the firefighters to work without a contract, which expired in 2014, for up to 10 years. They did not receive raises, but without the clause the City could have put them on the considerably less generous health insurance plan of other city workers until another contract was achieved. The City went to court to void the clause but lost.

The fire union wanted to keep the clause as is. The City and the police union agreed in their contract to reduce it to eight years. But unless there are last-minute changes, the arbitrators are lowering it to five years.

So the firefighters get the same less-generous health insurance that the police accepted, but earn lower wages. What’s more, they don’t get to seek further raises for nearly five years, whereas having signed four years ago, the police can expect further raises beginning next year. 

One question is how can the arbitrators give the firefighters a less-generous contract than even the City asked the panel for? Don’t arbitrators normally “split the baby”?

I asked that question of George Brin, a highly respected attorney and one of the city’s top arbitrators. He said there is a popular perception that arbitrators do that, partly because often they do. But, he said, they shouldn’t. 

“They are obligated to look at the facts and the law and decide based on those findings,” he said. 

My understanding is that the final contract issued by the arbitration panel will not include a report explaining the reasons behind its decisions. This is not uncommon and is not required unless the arbitration agreement calls for it. But the firefighters’ union should not be surprised if this panel followed the course Brin described rather than looking for a compromise. It is exactly what is called for in the language of the charter amendment the union sought and won. Here is the key part:

“In making its decision, the Board may consider only the following: (a) compensation and conditions of employment that prevail in comparable public sector employment in other cities; (b) the rate of increase or decrease in the cost of living for the San Antonio area as determined by the Consumer Price Index; (c) any of the following conditions: (i) hazards of employment, (ii) physical qualifications, (iii) educational qualifications, (iv) mental qualifications, (v) job training, (vi) skills, and (vii) any other factors the Board determines to be relevant to the issues raised by the parties; and (d) revenues available to the City and the impact of any arbitration ruling on the taxpayers of the City.”

So Sheryl Sculley may play chess in three dimensions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she has an extra spring in her step these days. But it wasn’t her move that led to this result. It was Steele’s blunder. He could have settled four years ago or earlier last year for more than he got. But instead he put it to a panel of arbitrators in a process that cost his members about $1 million in union money and years without a pay raise, and the panel did what it was supposed to do.

To mix the checkers vs. chess metaphor, Steele kinged himself, but surrendered his queen.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.