Firefighters hold signs in support of Greg Brockhouse at Cody Library earlier in the week.
Firefighters hold signs in support of Greg Brockhouse outside the Cody Library polling site during early voting for the May 4 elections in 2019. Credit: Courtesy / Ray Whitehouse

San Antonio’s police officers are apparently pleased with the new contract City Council is expected to ratify later this month. Nearly nine of 10 of them voted approval. If the city’s firefighters are paying attention — and you know they are — their reaction is more complicated.

Some, surely, are pleased for their brothers in blue. Many more, I suspect, are hurting for what might have been.

What might have been is firefighter paychecks more than 10 percent higher than today, with the pay gap between the two public safety unions growing wider over the next two years. 

Why? Because ever since at least 1988, before many of today’s firefighters were born, their union sat back as the stronger police union negotiated its contract. Then the firefighters would get what was called a “me-too” contract, providing the same pay structure and health benefits as the police had won. 

But when both the police and fire contracts ended in 2014, City Manager Sheryl Sculley won City Council support for demanding reforms to the health insurance policies that were much more generous for police and fire than for the city’s other employees. Sculley cited health care cost inflation that far outpaced total inflation, threatening to push the police and fire portion of the city’s operating budget past the two-thirds point. 

The police union fought hard, but after two years under the old contract without raises they agreed to insurance changes that were less than Sculley wanted but supported by Mayor Ivy Taylor and a majority of City Council.

The fire union chief, Chris Steele, convinced his members that the police union had caved. He escalated the fight, leading his members into a political war. First they joined a coalition not only to kill a streetcar project backed by much of the city’s establishment but to collect enough signatures to pass a charter amendment requiring that any future light rail or streetcar project would require voter approval. That was just the beginning. 

While successfully battling the city in court, the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association in 2018 poured about $1 million into a drive to gather signatures to put three charter amendments on the ballot. One of the three was ridiculous. It would have hobbled city government by subjecting any action by the City Council to threats of a referendum. 

The charter provision on enabling voters to overturn an ordinance would have been changed in three ways. The number of signatures would have been reduced from about 70,000 to 20,000. The time required to gather the signatures would have been expanded from 40 days to 180 days. Most threatening to city officials and risky to the city’s bond rating, the amendment would have expanded the ordinances subject to referendum to include such things as zoning changes, tax rate changes and even changes in CPS Energy and SAWS rates. 

Not only would much of city business suffer periods in limbo, but businesses that won a zoning change might need to delay construction for six months while signatures were gathered and months more if enough signatures were gathered. 

The voters rejected that charter amendment, but the firefighters won the other two. One of them was a populist measure aimed directly at their No. 1 enemy, Sculley. It limited the city manager to a term of eight years and capped the salary for the position at 10 times that of the lowest-paid city worker.

Sculley’s salary wasn’t affected by the change, but nevertheless she announced her retirement shortly afterwards. Her total annual compensation at the end of her 13-year tenure was a bit over $600,000. Her successor, Erik Walsh, was limited to a salary of $312,000.

The firefighters’ third charter amendment may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it came back to bite them. It provided that they could unilaterally declare an impasse in contract negotiations with the city and require that contract disputes be decided by a three-person arbitration panel. Each side would choose one arbitrator and those two would agree on a third.

The union went on to back Councilman Greg Brockhouse in his 2019 race against Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who had defeated Taylor two years earlier. The union not only gave Brockhouse money but also sent firefighters to work the polling places for him. They nearly won. Brockhouse forced Nirenberg into a runoff and came within less than 3 percentage points of beating him. 

The union triggered the arbitration in late 2019. In its presentation to the arbitrators the union sought an immediate 14% raise plus a $7,250 bonus to make up for the nearly six years without a raise since the previous contract expired. The union also called for the contract to last less than a year so it could quickly seek more raises. 

The city’s proposal to the arbitrators included the same health insurance deal the police union had settled for but called for a 2.5-year contract with 3% raises each year, plus a signing bonus. 

Maybe fire union chief Steele thought the arbitrators would “split the baby,” but they didn’t. The firefighters had demonstrated a great deal of political muscle, but the arbitrators didn’t care. 

They produced a five-year contract with a 5% signing bonus for the remainder of 2020 and modest raises the next four years. It has the same health insurance changes as the police contract. The contract placed firefighters’ salaries at about 11% lower than they would have been had they taken the deal the police union won, and included the same health insurance reforms.

The gap will grow a bit worse compared over the next two years in comparison to the new police contract. The police will receive 3.5% raises in 2023 and 2024. Firefighters will receive a 2.5% raise each year, plus a 0.5% bonus. But here’s the thing about the bonuses: They save the city money. They don’t count when the next year’s raise is calculated, and they don’t count toward pensions. 

Perhaps the worst impacts may turn out to be that the firefighters are no longer on the same contract schedule as the police union and have blown the precedent of getting “me-too” contracts.

In a press conference after the arbitrators’ ruling was announced, Steele, who had been re-elected a couple of months earlier, said, “We’re OK with the arbitrators’ ruling. The arbitration process worked.”

I didn’t believe him. At the time, I predicted two things: That Steele would not be negotiating the next contract, and that the union would not use arbitration. I was right about the first prediction: Joe Jones was elected to replace him earlier this year. The next contract won’t be negotiated for a couple of years, but I stand by the second prediction. 

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.