All other major Texas cities – Austin, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth – use a form of collective bargaining with its police officers known as “meet and confer.” This would be the likely, but not guaranteed, outcome for San Antonio and its police force if voters pass Proposition B on May 1.
If approved, Prop B would repeal Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code, which grants the union its collective bargaining rights. It would not disband the San Antonio Police Officers Association nor remove all paths for it to negotiate a new labor contract when the current one expires Sept. 31.
“Oct. 1, if there’s no [contract] in place, if somebody calls 911, a police officer is going to show up,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia. If the proposition is approved, police would still be prohibited under state law from striking and protected from lockouts.
According to a recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll, nearly 30% of registered voters in San Antonio said they have not decided how they will vote on the proposition.
Activists pushing for approval of the measure, including policing reform group Fix SAPD, say the collective bargaining process results in contract provisions that allow cops fired for misconduct to get back on the force. Union leaders say the loss of collective bargaining would mean fewer job protections and effectively result in “defunding” benefits for police, making it harder to attract qualified officers.
A City-commissioned survey completed last month found police officers in San Antonio are the second-highest compensated in Texas – behind Austin – when pay packages are adjusted for area cost of living.
That standing could be in jeopardy if Prop B passes. However, a St. Mary’s University School of Law professor said that while the City of San Antonio would have the upper hand in contract negotiations under meet and confer, state civil service laws give police officers considerable protections under Chapter 143 of the Texas Government Code.
Both chapters 143 and 174 were adopted by San Antonio voters and can be repealed by referendum. Prop B would repeal only Chapter 174, leaving civil service rules in place that likely would not meet the goals of Fix SAPD, the City, or the police union.
Over the years, collective bargaining has allowed the City and union to negotiate better procedures when it comes to testing processes and tools to recruit a more diverse police force. Beyond wages, health care, and disciplinary procedures, the contract also includes terms for clothing allowances, drug testing, and other workplace elements.
Civil service provisions contain some of the same policies regarding discipline and appeals processes that Fix SAPD says are problematic. Examples include the 180-day statute of limitation rule for police misconduct and an arbitrator’s ability to overturn the chief of police’s decision on punishment. These are also terms in the current contract that the City is actively trying to change.
If Chapter 174 is repealed, police “will still have very strong protections, because they will still have that civil service protection” through Chapter 143, said St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Geary Reamey, who previously served as a legal advisor for the Irving Police Department in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
San Antonio’s park and airport police already negotiate through meet and confer.
“Meet and confer is also a form of collective bargaining,” Reamey said.
If Prop B is approved, the union would have several legal options within state law to set up a meet-and-confer process to negotiate a contract.
Both collective bargaining (under Chapter 174) and meet and confer (which can occur under several state laws) can supersede civil service rules. The critical difference is that an earnest effort at contract negotiation is required by both sides under Chapter 174. Under meet-and-confer laws, the City is not required to negotiate.
“[The City] can set the agenda for the negotiation and that’s a considerable power… that really diminishes the role of the [association],” Reamey said.
Meet and confer gives the City a significant upper hand. City Council could just set the terms of employment as it sees fit, something that would be unlikely, because the City could lose police officers if the terms aren’t attractive. And it couldn’t fix the disciplinary issues outlined in Chapter 143 without an agreement with the union.
For the police union, though, reaching a contract through meet and confer would be uncharted territory.
“We would lose the one contract in the framework that we have,” said Sgt. Rachel Barnes, a member of the union’s negotiating team, during a recent debate. “And then we would have to struggle as a department, to understand how we’re going to operate as a department under a different set of rules. And then if we were to get meet and confer, we would start from ground zero trying to build another contract, and that contract could have the exact same things in it that our contract does now.”
That’s where the electorate could step in, said James Dykman, data and policy analyst for Fix SAPD. Several state laws exist that would allow for a public vote on a contract reached between the City and police union.
Under meet-and-confer rules, if enough voters didn’t like the deal ratified by City Council, they could submit petitions to place a measure seeking a repeal of the contract on a local ballot.
“The citizens get the final vote on the contract if it doesn’t meet all of their priorities,” Dykman said.
That could speed up the progress made on police reforms, from disciplinary practices to better benefits for police, he said.
Health care and wages were the primary focus of two years of negotiations and closed-door mediation sessions that resulted in the current police union contract. Several large protests at City Hall and in Council chambers decrying the lack of progress on disciplinary reform took place before the contract was approved in 2016.
While significant progress has been made on disciplinary rules in current negotiating sessions, the two sides continue to disagree on the appeals process for officers accused of misconduct. These rules govern how administrative complaints are handled; criminal offenses are investigated through the department’s Internal Affairs unit. The two sides also have multimillion-dollar gaps between their wage and health care proposals. On Monday, union officials said they likely won’t schedule another meeting until after the election – that is, if Prop B fails.
Under meet and confer, “a citizen could go out and collect petition signatures to [say] … ‘No, you have to address this now. I’m not going to wait for you to do this,'” Dykman said.
The agreements could also carve out stronger citizen oversight boards and other terms that could strengthen police-community relations.
Ultimately, it’s up to the union to pursue meet and confer – if at all.
“We are looking at all of our options,” said SAPD Sgt. Christopher Lutton, who chairs the union’s contract negotiation committee.
If the union chooses to bargain with meet-and-confer terms set up under Chapter 143, residents would have 45 days to submit roughly 80,000 signatures. It took Fix SAPD about six months to collect the 20,000 signatures to get Prop B on the ballot.
Segovia called the repeal-by-petition idea “conceptually correct but practically a long shot.”
But meet and confer under another state statute, Chapter 142, would allow petitioners 60 days to submit roughly 11,000 signatures.
Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and other activist groups took two months to collect and submit more than 144,000 petition signatures for a local paid sick leave ordinance in 2018.
First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio, a member of the City’s bargaining team who also has extensive experience with meet-and-confer contracts, said she has never heard of a labor agreement being repealed by referendum.
But the ability to repeal such an agreement by referendum isn’t unique to the meet and confer process. The City’s Charter already provides a path – 40 days after a Council vote to submit 80,000 signatures, to get the repeal on a ballot.
Ultimately, Dykman said Fix SAPD will aim at repealing Chapter 143, too.
Dallas, unlike other major cities, did not adopt Chapter 143. Instead, provisions for discipline are included in its city charter, and it uses meet and confer for other policies regarding uniformed employees.
Dallas’ police department and contract framework, like most, have their own unique issues and San Antonio could start its own, unique new framework, Dykman said. “A system that we don’t have to negotiate for [accountability] would be much better.”
A contract-by-ordinance system could make the City “more responsive to the real needs of the citizens and the police department,” Reamey said, but City Council could end up “constantly renegotiating” various terms as the union and activists lobby for adjustments.
“By doing that, you’re spending inordinate amounts of time and energy and money that could be better directed, probably, toward managing the [other] huge problems that all American cities have,” he said.
It would also likely mean constant budgetary adjustments for the most expensive department in the City, one that is used to stable, longer-term arrangements, Reamey said. “You’re essentially just flying by the seat of your pants.”