San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association President Chris Steele.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Chris Steele answered questions about the relationship between the City and the union. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Attorneys representing the City of San Antonio called on firefighters union President Chris Steele to answer questions about the yearslong tumultuous relationship between the City and the union that has led the two parties to enter binding arbitration this week.

Since early 2014, City officials asked the union to begin contract negotiations about 10 times. At first the union wasn’t prepared to negotiate because it was waiting to receive health care data and other information from the City, Steele said. Then, the union refused to meet because the City had filed a lawsuit challenging a clause in the current contract, he said.

“For us, it was something near and dear to our heart … that was under attack,” Steele said. To him, the lawsuit represented the City “reneging on an agreement that they signed.”

The lawsuit challenged the evergreen clause that keeps most of the terms of the previous, expired contract, including health care plans and longevity pay, in place for 10 years – until September 2024.

Donna McElroy, an attorney representing the City in arbitration, led a line of questioning meant to imply that by not reaching an agreement, the union was actually getting what it wanted: the premium free health care for firefighters and their dependents included in the previous contract.

“Members consistently put health care as their number one priority,” Steele said. He later added that while it was a priority, the union also wanted to negotiate a contract “in good faith.”

It wasn’t until January 2019 that the union agreed to start negotiations – after court-ordered mediation sessions resulted in an impasse and a November charter amendment election that granted the union unilateral ability to call for binding arbitration. After 10 public negotiation meetings and a narrow defeat of union-backed mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse in June, the union invoked its arbitration right in July.

McElroy pointed to several instances of the union provoking the City through press conferences and inflammatory language in its newsletter that is sent to members and other subscribers.

Steele also pointed to press conferences and negotiation meetings he said were staged “for show” for the media that the City hosted.

“So both sides are saying the same things about each other?” McElroy said in an attempt to get Steele to admit that there were negative rhetoric coming from both sides. She showed him a copy of the union’s newsletter that contained a cartoon drawing of Steele “blowing up” former City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

It was not drawn by Steele, but he acknowledged that it was published and distributed by the union.

“I don’t think it’s negative,” he said.

For the first time in the City’s history, a panel of three arbitrators will decide the final terms of the union’s labor contract with the City. Those contracts are usually developed through a proposal and counter-proposal process during collective bargaining sessions. Under that process, the union and City negotiating teams produce a final draft that is voted on by union membership and ultimately ratified by City Council. The union won the unilateral right to call for binding arbitration through a public vote in November 2018, the same month the city dropped its evergreen lawsuit.

It’s unclear if this exploration of historic tit-for-tat between the City and fire union will have a substantial bearing on the panel’s final contract. By law, the panel can consider anything they deem relevant.

The union has proposed a one-year contract that would become effective retroactively on Oct. 1 this year and expire Sept. 30, 2020. That means the City and fire union would need to begin collective bargaining talks again soon to get a contract in place before the new one expires.

The City has proposed a 2.5-year contract with two new health care options similar to what the police union agreed to in 2016. That contract was arrived at while the City’s evergreen lawsuit was pending against the previous contract.

Tensions between the city’s public safety unions started, arguably, in 2013 when Mayor Julián Castro established a task force to review the health care and pension expenses for uniform, civilian, and retired City employees. The task force concluded that the City’s costs for providing health care to uniformed employees were outpacing revenues and therefore should look into right-sizing public safety benefits.

The police and fire union representatives on the task force took issue with the City’s numbers and financial assumptions, just as they did during mediation and negotiation sessions this year. But they agreed that health care should be an integral part of negotiations.

Before the task force was formed, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley said that, if left unchecked, spending on public safety contracts will consume the money from the City’s General Fund that the City spends on other services.

Ahead of the City’s requests to negotiate a new contract, the union was aware that the City was “coming after” health care benefits, union attorney Richard Poulson said.

But in previous years, negotiations for the next contract didn’t start as early as the City wanted to start, he noted. Steele said he was not expecting to negotiate in early 2014 nor was his team prepared to do so without first polling union membership and gathering health care data.

The union had pending information requests with the city, he said, which were mostly fulfilled by the City during court-ordered mediation sessions. But some information was deemed proprietary as it rested with the City’s third-party health care program administrators, Blue Cross Blue Shield and CVS Pharmacy.

The arbitration period, which started on Monday, will last 20 days with optional extensions if needed, City attorneys have said. Meetings are currently scheduled nearly every day through Tuesday, Dec. 17. The union will likely deliver its opening statement and start calling its own witnesses on Monday, Dec. 9, sources said.

The panel has the authority to take as much time as it needs to craft a binding contract while taking both sides’ proposals into consideration.

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...