San Antonio Fire Association bargaining attorney Ricky Poole addresses members of the media formally announcing an acceptance to come to the bargaining table with the City.
Ricky J. Poole is the lead negotiator for the firefighters union in San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The firefighters union will “likely” declare an impasse and trigger the binding arbitration awarded to them by Proposition C if the City demands mediation sessions, according the union’s lead negotiator, Ricky J. Poole.

The City of San Antonio sent a letter Thursday morning accepting the firefighter union’s proposal to extend labor contract negotiations for 15 days, but it proposes the use of a third-party mediator, former Texas Supreme Court Judge Deborah Hankinson, for two days later this month. The negotiation meetings have been chilly – literally and figuratively – and marked with distrust.

“We do believe, as I mentioned before, that proceeding with a mediator is the most effective and efficient way to make real progress,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a letter sent later in the day. “Clearly, simply doing what we have been doing over the past ten sessions leaves no reasonable expectation of resolution.”

“Likely this is going to arbitration,” Poole said, adding later that “at the end of the day, I don’t make that decision.”

Poole will be presenting the City’s counteroffer to union officials and will probably have an answer in the next few days.

The deadline to extend labor contract negotiations is Sunday, then the talks are at an impasse according to state law. The two sides could agree to enter mediation or arbitration. The union also could take negotiations to state District Court, where a judge would decide on specific contract terms. 

The union has the voter-approved, unilateral authority to call for binding arbitration. Unlike mediation, the arbitration process would produce a contract that both sides would be forced to agree to and the meetings could be open to the public.

“I think every meeting helps,” Poole said. “This is the first time that one of those parties may have to actually invoke arbitration because we couldn’t reach a deal at the table.”

The union does not think the two sides are close enough to a deal for mediation to be helpful, Poole said. The main points of contention in the contract are still health care, wages, contract length, and length of evergreen. There are also a host of more minor items they disagree on.

The union did not set a deadline for response during the negotiation meeting Tuesday when the two sides traded proposals; the union presented the 15-day extension and the City asked if the union would consider mediation or delaying talks until 2021.

“I support our negotiating team’s proposal for mediation,” Nirenberg said in a prepared statement. “We are serious about trying to reach an agreement and I am not willing to play political games with these talks.”

The two sides have met 10 times since talks began two months ago after years of tense relations, lawsuits, and a divisive proposition election that awarded the union the unilateral right to call for binding arbitration. Both sides have indicated that they are prepared to go to arbitration, but only as a last resort.

“Our preference would be to continue to negotiate [as we have been],” Poole said.

Soon after sending a representative to hand-deliver its proposal to the City – intended for Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s signature, Poole called a press conference for later Thursday morning to prod the City without waiting for a response to the proposal from the City’s negotiating team, he confirmed.

This is not the first time that communication from the union to the City has come in the form of a press conference.

“It seems like you call press conferences more than you call me,” Segovia told Poole at the second meeting between the two sides.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org