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The dust is settling after local public safety unions helped Greg Brockhouse mount a substantial challenge to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, but questions loom over the fate of the City’s labor contract negotiations with the firefighters union.
The mayor defeated Brockhouse by just two percentage points in Saturday’s runoff election. After he traded barbs with Brockhouse throughout a heated campaign, political observers say Nirenberg has an opportunity to temper the rhetoric and get a deal done.
Both fire and police unions endorsed and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Brockhouse’s campaign, and he was seen by many of his supporters as the only candidate that could broker a deal. But Nirenberg and others said that deal would fall short of protecting the City’s budget and reining in health care costs.
The years-long battle included a November proposition election that gutted the city manager’s pay and tenure while giving the fire union an upper hand in negotiations. Months of public negotiation meetings ensued and now continue in private mediation sessions. The latest extension, agreed upon by the union and city negotiation teams sets a June 20 deadline, the day after City Council and the mayor will be inaugurated.
One of the successful ballot measures in November gave the union unilateral authority to call for binding arbitration. The fire union can still declare an impasse at any time.
“I think that members of the fire department and members of the fire union want this impasse to be over, want this conflict to resolve,” Nirenberg said after narrowly earning a second term Saturday night. “And they’re going to resolve it with me as mayor. As I’ve said from the very beginning five years ago, this is about making sure that we have a responsible contract for them and their members and their families that they can depend on, but also one that’s responsible to taxpayers, and that has not changed. So we’re going to work diligently with them to make sure they get a fair deal, and I look forward to resolving that contract once and for all.”
Brockhouse agrees that a deal needs to be reached.
“Half the city’s not happy with the direction [of negotiations with the fire union],” Brockhouse told the Rivard Report after he conceded. “I hope that the mayor takes that, and it really is an olive branch for ‘Let’s get this done.’”
“We gotta drop the grudges and the anger,” he added.
Fire union officials declined to comment on Sunday. Internal meetings are taking place Monday and Tuesday to discuss a path forward, a spokesman said.
Colin Strother, a political consultant who works for the union but is not directly involved in contract negotiations, said the election results have little, if any, impact on the fire union’s contract.
“The inconvenient truth is it didn’t matter who won the mayor’s race,” Strother said. “The mayor nor the Council are at the table.”
Some, including Nirenberg, said Brockhouse would “give away the farm” to the union if he were elected, Strother added.
“It was a really good narrative and it was effective, but the reality doesn’t live up to the hype,” he said.
City staff and attorneys develop the contract with union counterparts and the mayor gets one vote, he noted, just like all the other Council members.
The mayor can make a difference by “toning down the rhetoric” and being open to the fire union’s proposals during negotiations, he said.
“The mayor has the opportunity to be the adult in the room,” he said.
The true impact of Nirenberg’s win remains unclear until either side makes a procedural move; they could agree or disagree on another extension – the latter would trigger a process in the courts – and the union could call for arbitration.
The City’s deal with police officers, reached in 2016, includes health care plans that have some police officers paying premiums for their dependents. Currently, the City covers the premiums for firefighters’ dependents, and that’s a main driver for rising municipal expenditures.
During negotiations, the fire union proposed setting up its own health care trust to take away management of funding from the City and give it to a union-led board. That option, according to City negotiators, would be too risky and expensive for the City to support.
While the police union’s contract was hard-fought – and allowed the City to realize lower-than-projected costs – it also has a “me too” clause that allows it to reap the same wage benefits that the firefighters receive if and when they sign a deal.
That brings added pressure to negotiations with the fire union.
Regardless, the City remains polarized after one of the most contentious elections in recent memory, and reconciling differences between the negotiating parties will be a tall order. But Nirenberg said he aims to mend old wounds.
“Councilman Brockhouse is still a resident of this city, a citizen of San Antonio, and his voice matters just like any other resident of San Antonio,” he said. “So, no one will be left behind. I will choose to make sure that we represent San Antonio fairly and that the interests of the community come first, not anyone’s political interests. That’s what this campaign was all about, and the campaign is over now. So we’ll go back now to work, and make sure that we have a city that’s fair and equitable and prosperous for all.”
Nirenberg has the ability to be a good mayor, political consultant Christian Archer said.
“I think he’s got to listen,” Archer said. “Instead of doing 50 things [in his next term], Ron needs to focus on three. And one of them needs to be getting a deal with the union in order to carry out the rest of his agenda regarding transportation, climate action, and more.
“The closeness of the race but still winning means the opportunity to get a deal done is now. If they don’t get a deal done, then it’s another election cycle of scorched earth [in two years]. I think Nirenberg wants to [put] this behind him.”