I don’t know about you, but if my family ever suffers a fire at home or has to call EMS, I really hope Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council members, or City Manager Sheryl Sculley do not show up at the front door.

Nothing personal, but they were elected and hired to run the city, not put out fires or drive ambulances. Conversely, the firefighters union bosses have no business trying to break through a back door to ransack City Hall, set it on fire, and with it, the voter-approved city charter.

Yet that is exactly what Chris Steele, the president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, has threatened to do with a petition drive that aims to undermine city leaders and radically amend the city charter that empowers leaders to govern responsibly.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Christopher Steele states how SAFD has a history of unfair disciplinary actions.
San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Christopher Steele Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Steele calls its “San Antonio First.” I call it political arson.

Most of us place our first responders on a pedestal, especially in these troubled times where anything can and does happen anywhere. Some of us don’t feel the same about headline-seeking union bosses who have failed for more than three years to accept the city’s invitation to come to the bargaining table in good faith.

Unfortunately, Nirenberg, City Council, and the 8,000-plus civilian City employees led by Sculley now face a political fire that could become a significant distraction, not unlike the divisive and destructive three-year war waged by the police union.

Nirenberg spoke forcefully against the union bosses while addressing the San Antonio Bar Association last Thursday at the Club at Sonterra. I was on stage with the mayor for a conversation on city issues and later asked him to restate his comments for publication here.

“What is happening is not the firefighters themselves, it’s a few bullies – the union bosses who push everyone else around – who are manipulating thousands of firefighters and an entire city,” Nirenberg stated. “If they get what they are seeking and push unwitting voters to sign their manifesto, it would rip up vast portions of the city charter that the San Antonio public approved by a vote.”

Steele did not return a call seeking comment for this column. Here’s a brief recap of the news.

Steele’s latest political assault on City Hall was first reported in this article in the Express-News on Feb. 20 following a press conference at City Hall that day. Click here to read the union statement and the response from City officials.

Three separate union petitions are being circulated to require an election to amend the city charter. The first petition would cap the city manager’s compensation at 10 times the lowest-paid, full-time city employee, impose an employment term limit of eight years, and require a supermajority vote at City Council to approve employment contracts.

That would reduce Sculley’s pay by 40 percent, and handcuff elected officials trying to recruit her replacement with the promise of termination in eight years to any prospective candidates.

“This is more gamesmanship from a fire union that refuses to negotiate a contract that expired more than three years ago,” Sculley said in a subsequent statement. “The only way to give firefighters the compensation they deserve is for the union to come to the table and bargain in good faith.”

Steele has been president of the fire union for nearly 15 years, the City’s rebuttal noted, longer even than Sculley’s 12-year tenure.

A second petition would require the City to enter into binding arbitration rather than resorting to the courts and lawsuits when it wants to challenge the union on issues like the 10-year evergreen clause in the currently expired contract. That clause keeps all contract benefits in place for up to a decade when a collective bargaining agreement expires and the union refuses to bargain for a new contract.

The current firefighters contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014. The constitutionality of the evergreen clause is the subject of a city lawsuit that is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court following two rulings in lower courts favoring the union. The problem with binding arbitration is that arbiters are selected from a union-approved list and tend to rule in the favor of unions. To rule otherwise is to risk being struck from the list by union leaders and losing out on lucrative assignments.

A third petition would make it easier for the firefighters union and other groups to challenge city ordinances passed by City council, reducing the number of signatures required from 75,000 to 20,000, and extending the petition deadline from 40 to 120 days.

That would make the firefighters union, in effect, a new branch of municipal government, challenging any City Council ordinance that union officials do not like or that they choose to oppose to create political chaos.

“[The union’s plan] would devastate this city,” Nirenberg stated. “If ever there were a call to arms for reasonable, informed San Antonians from all walks of life to say, ‘Enough is enough’ with fire union antics, this is it. Residents, businesses and organizations need to decide whether they will speak out against this insanity or whether they will stand aside and watch. History will tally the names of those who remain on the sidelines.”

We can extinguish this fire before it spreads. Both sides can set aside, for the moment, the contentious issue of the evergreen clause now before the state’s highest court, and come to the bargaining table in good faith to address pay, benefits, and other issues. The firefighters are not going to get a better deal than the police. There is no great mystery to the outcome here, no matter how many years the union holds out.

A tentative agreement can be reached pending a court ruling on the evergreen clause. City leaders can go back to governing, and firefighters can put down their petitions and return to the vital work of protecting people and their property, for which we are eternally grateful.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.