Now that the arbitration process has begun for resolving the 5-year-old standoff between the City of San Antonio and its firefighters union over a new contract, only one prediction is safe regarding the outcome.

It certainly isn’t which side will “win” the arbitration. That’s anybody’s guess. It is that union President Chris Steele will benefit from the process.

It’s a process that Steele engineered by spending more than $1 million in union members’ money to place – and get passed – three charter amendments on the ballot. One of the two that received voters’ approval was a charter amendment giving the union the power to unilaterally declare negotiations at an impasse and send the matter to arbitration.

To understand how it will benefit Steele, you need to understand the pressures both sides of the dispute are under.

Nearly three years ago, the City settled with the police union after two years of sometimes bitter negotiations. City Council had set as a goal keeping the costs of police and fire protection under two-thirds of the city’s operating budget. 

The police contract was projected to be somewhat more than half of those costs if, as had been usual in the past, the firefighters were given an equivalent contract. Then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley suggested that the firefighters, who were still refusing to negotiate, would have to get less to meet the goal. Rewarding the first to reach an agreement is common in labor negotiations.

Sculley is gone, largely because of the other ballot measure initiated by the firefighters union that passed, capping future city managers’ salaries and setting term limits for the position. It did not affect Sculley, but the ease with which it passed – with 59 percent of the vote – indicated weakness in her public support.

City Council is under considerable pressure not to give the firefighters more than the police. Doing so would set a terrible precedent, encouraging the unions to hold out in future negotiations. In addition, the police contract provides that more favorable terms for the firefighters would automatically be given to them, thereby stressing the budget even more.

What’s more, the State Legislature squeezed the City further last spring when it passed a tight property tax cap on local jurisdictions, limiting the revenue gains they have made from increasing property values. The Legislature also passed a law eliminating $7.3 million in right-of-way fees the city collected from telecommunications companies. 

In addition City Council recently passed a homestead exemption that will save the average homeowner $28 a year but cost the city’s general fund $3.6 million. Meanwhile, the City’s revenues from CPS Energy have come in $11 million less than projected. All these circumstances add pressure for the City to hold the line.

But the union’s Chris Steele also has pressure. His members have gone without raises for five years, including three years since the generous deal won by the police appeared achievable for them.

The union set the rules for the arbitration with their ballot initiative last summer, and the voters approved it by less than 51 percent. But even though the City had no say in the rules mandated under the measure, it is not clear that those rules favor one side.

According to the charter amendment, the panel “may only consider” matters such as the pay and benefits in comparable cities, inflation, qualifications such as education, training, fitness and so on, and “revenues available to the City and the impact of any arbitration ruling on the taxpayers of the City.”

This, to the credit of the union, which wrote the amendment, would seem to preclude an overly extravagant contract. City officials are especially confident that San Antonio firefighters are already among the best paid and have possibly unparalleled health insurance benefits, at least in Texas.

Absent a lawsuit alleging that the arbitrators’ decision is not supported by the evidence presented or that fraud or collusion was at play, City Council should know what the new contract requires before the end of August, when its members will be putting the final touches on a budget that goes into effect Oct. 1. 

Should Steele win less or even the same as the police, a good portion of his members will question the wisdom of holding out all this time. Union leaders have lost elections for less.

That’s the advantage – for Steele – of going to arbitration. It’s possible that he will get more from the arbitrators than he ever would have won from the City. If so, he can take credit.

It’s also possible he will get even less. But he will never have to admit that he settled for less than what the police got. He can, instead, blame the arbitrators.

It may not save him from criticism, but it is better than putting his signature on any deal he was likely to get from the City.

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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.