Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks on behalf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.
Two days after the passage of two of the three charter amendments, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) calls for the resignation of City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After more than four years of political posturing, charter propositions, and litigation, the local firefighters union and the City of San Antonio are finally in serious negotiations. Both sides appear to have decided in their opening offers on the issues that really matter – wages and health benefits – that they need to prepare for the endgame.

The union proposed a five-year contract with a 27.5 percent hike in pay and medical benefits. The City put forth a one-year contract with a 2 percent one-time bonus but no increase in base pay. Also, the firefighters would for the first time have to pay for some of their health care.

If the two sides were any farther apart they would need SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for shuttle diplomacy. They clearly aren’t speaking to each other in these opening gambits. My guess is they’re speaking to The Arbitrators.

Last year the firefighter’s union proposed three charter amendments, two of which the people of San Antonio passed in November. A patently populist measure limited the pay and tenure of the city manager. The other one was not at all populist.

The police union contract provides that if the police union and the City reach an impasse in negotiations, the final decision on the disputed provisions is put to a vote of the people. The firefighters, who lost the vote on a charter amendment that would have made it much easier to put nearly all actions of City Council up to a popular vote, definitely did not want the voters to weigh in on their contracts. Instead, they narrowly passed a charter amendment that allows the union – and not the City – to unilaterally declare an impasse in negotiations at any time. At that point, a three-person arbitration panel will settle disputes. Each side will pick one arbitrator, and they must agree on the third.

A huge chunk – nearly one-third – of the City’s budget is taken out of the hands of elected officials and given to a single person, or possibly a small panel. With the high likelihood that an arbitration panel will “split the baby” with something between the proposals of the two sides, neither has an incentive to open with a reasonable offer.

Negotiators on both sides are under considerable pressure. Council members set as a serious goal holding the cost of public safety contracts – primarily police and firefighter salaries and benefits – at two-thirds of the City’s general fund.

Given the contract that the police union won two-and-a-half years ago, they’ll reach that goal only if the firefighters get somewhat less than their usual parity with police. The police won a five-year contract with a total pay increase of 14 percent plus a 3 percent signing bonus. But police are paying some of their health care costs for the first time.

Meanwhile, firefighters have had their salaries frozen for more than four years as their union leaders engaged in guerrilla warfare with City leaders. If they aren’t rewarded for their sacrifice, they might decide they need new union leaders.

The timing of the negotiations brings another factor into play: the mayor’s race. In late 2017, union chief Chris Steele was secretly recorded telling a group of firefighters that the union’s push for the three charter amendments was intended to accomplish three things. The first two were getting the city to drop a lawsuit against the union and to negotiate “objectively” with the union.

“The third thing is set it up to where May of 2019, we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be Greg Brockhouse in the mayor’s office,” Steele said.

Sources say Brockhouse, who used to work as a consultant for the firefighter’s union, has counted on the union to contribute heavily to his campaign. The union and its political action committee, like individuals, are limited to $1,000 to a mayoral candidate per election cycle. That limit will make it difficult for Brockhouse to raise anything like the $500,000 or so that a serious mayor’s race requires at a minimum.

But, sources say, Brockhouse has expected the fire union to spend hundreds of thousands through an “independent political action committee.” Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such committees are permitted to spend unlimited funds but may not “coordinate” with the candidate’s campaign. Such committees have become common in presidential and other federal races but have not yet been players in San Antonio mayoral races.

The healthy amount Brockhouse has expected from the union is not a pipe dream. After all, the union spent $504,000 just to gather the petition signatures for its charter amendments.

But the union may want to reconsider its commitment to Brockhouse, especially if its internal polls show him struggling. If the union becomes Brockhouse’s major funder and he loses – especially if he loses badly – it may be seen as a referendum on union demands. The voters will have spoken.

That could encourage City Council members to show fiscal discipline by instructing their negotiators to cap their offers at less than what the police won. And at that point, the union may be very glad it passed the charter amendment that puts the final contract in the hands not of the voters but of three very powerful arbitrators.

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.