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

It’s been seven days since the City of San Antonio dropped its lawsuit challenging the “evergreen” clause in the firefighters union labor contract. That timeline is significant because union President Chris Steele said in March that if the City drops the lawsuit, “we will be at the table within seven days” to negotiate a new contract.

The City has not received a response from the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association or its representatives, the City’s Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle told the Rivard Report Thursday.

Last week, City Attorney Andy Segovia sent a letter to union attorney Ricky Poole that formally notified the union that the lawsuit had been dropped. Segovia also asked for him for available dates in December to set up mediation sessions.

Steele and other fire union representatives did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

“As mayor, I am extending my hand because we need to negotiate a deal,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Thursday. “There’s an open seat at the table. The taxpayers and firefighters deserve a fair deal to put the conflict behind us. Our door is still open and I am still ready to negotiate.”

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who has worked for the unions and will likely launch a campaign for mayor in 2019, said Thursday that the fire union needs to start negotiations soon.

“Firefighters union leaders have made it clear that they viewed the city’s lawsuit as the last remaining obstacle before negotiations could begin,” Nirenberg said in a statement last week. “We have now removed the obstacle and look forward to putting our conflict behind us and getting a new agreement that is fair to firefighters and taxpayers.”

The warring sides have yet to discuss the new contract outside of court-ordered mediation sessions last year that were unsuccessful. The firefighters’ contract expired in 2014, but the 10-year evergreen clause allows firefighters to work under its terms without normal wage increases. The City filed two separate lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of a 10-year clause in both the fire and police union contracts. The lawsuits were cited by both unions as a detriment to “good faith” negotiations, but the City countered that the clauses were the real barrier to talks.

When the police union reached a compromise deal with the City in 2016, the City dropped the suit pertaining to the police union but continued to appeal its request for a summary judgment against the fire union’s clause to the Texas Supreme Court. The high court declined to hear the case in June.

Meanwhile, the fire union led the charge to get three city charter amendments approved by voters on the November ballot; a proposition that would have made it easier for citizens to put City Council decisions to a public vote failed, but voters approved limits to future city managers’ salaries and tenure and a measure that gives the union binding arbitration power with the City for a new contract. In order for the fire union to use its voter-approved power to call for non-binding arbitration, negotiations must first begin.

On the same day that the City dropped its lawsuit, City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced her retirement. Officials said the timing was a coincidence, but some have speculated that with Sculley – a longtime target of union criticism – on her way out, negotiations could finally start.

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