After more than five years of failed negotiations, lawsuits, appeals, and an election that changed the city’s charter, the City of San Antonio and its firefighters union finally have a labor contract, effective immediately.

City and union officials praised the deal, but some firefighters – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – were dissatisfied.

Under the terms of the five-year contract, firefighters will have two health care plan options, with one requiring members pay premiums for the first time; a one-time 7 percent lump sum payment; incremental pay increases ranging from 2 to 3 percent; and a five-year evergreen clause that keeps most of the terms of the previous contract in place – without base pay increases – after it expires. The previous contract expired in September 2014.

The new collective bargaining agreement, reached by a panel of arbitrators, expires on Dec. 31, 2024. The overall contract costs the City $260 million per year today and the new contract will increase the total by $22.6 million over the five-year term.

The contract is a compromise between the City’s latest offer made during arbitration, which would have cost an additional $9.5 million over five years. The union was seeking a contract that would have cost an additional $183 million over the length of the deal.

The contract does not include any retroactive pay to union members, who have gone without base pay increases for five years while their premium-free insurance plan stayed in place due to the evergreen clause.

“The arbitration panel reached an award that was fair to both firefighters and taxpayers,” City Manager Erik Walsh said in a memo Thursday. He recommended the money to cover the additional $8.8 million expense of the contract this year would come out of the City’s Fiscal Year 2019 General Fund, which netted an additional $11.5 million last year.

The new agreement includes a 17 percent pay increase; a combination of 7 percent lump sum and 10 percent recurring wages during the five-year term. Five percent of the lump sum payment will be awarded within 30 days. All other pay increases will be paid in January of each year through 2024.

This is the first contract in San Antonio’s history that was decided by binding arbitration, which means that the panel’s ruling on the terms is legally binding. Union membership and City Council do not get to vote on the deal.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “We have a new five-year deal that is structurally balanced, that achieves all of the negotiating points that the city set out to from the very start, and allows us now to press reset and to begin to restore the relationships that have been frayed over the last six years.”

“This is not a win for the city or a lose for anyone else – it’s a win for the entire community because it’s a fair deal.”

The police union, which has historically struck deals with the City that are similar to the fire union’s, also received a total 17 percent wage increase, but 14 percent of that was recurring – meaning it was added to base pay – and 3 percent was one a one-time payment. That deal was reached in 2016.

Previously, the fire union wanted a 14 percent base pay increase and $7,250 signing bonus in the first and only year of its proposal, while the City proposed a 3 percent lump-sum payment at the time of signing with 3 percent wage increases in 2021 and 2022.

Firefirghters’ contributions for health care will increase 10 percent each year during the term of the contract and the evergreen period – just as they do for police. Those changes will go into effect April 2020. Open enrollment into the new plans will begin as early as next week, Walsh told reporters Thursday.

“With this health care plan, San Antonio firefighters still have the best health care plan in terms of premiums, coverage, and city contribution when compared to other firefighters in Texas,” he said. The health care plan also keeps the firefighters in step with the deal struck by the police union.

Firefighters union President Chris Steele echoed Walsh’s sentiment praising the deal as a win for his union.

“This compensation plan and health care package protects the firefighters and the citizens and keeps us as one of the highest compensated fire departments in the great state of Texas,” Steele stated in the release.

Steele further defended the deal at a press conference.

“The arbitration process worked,” he said. “There is no comparison point [between the police and fire union]. They deserve the money they get and our firefighters deserve the money we get.”

The total award of the contract is substantially less than the deal the union proposed, Steele acknowledged, but that was part of the union’s strategy.

“The outcome is what’s the key,” he said, adding later, that “we’re happy with the deal … it’s a big win.”

Several union members, who did not want to be identified, called the new contract disappointing because they were expecting retroactive pay to make up for the previous five years they went without pay increases.

Reining in the rising cost of health care for uniformed police and firefighters was one of the City’s top priorities. A 2013 task force formed under then-Mayor Julián Castro found that public safety contacts in San Antonio provided one of the richest benefits package in the state and were fiscally unsustainable. Under the previous contract, union members and their dependents paid no monthly premiums.

“This is a win for the taxpayers of San Antonio,” former City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the Rivard Report. “Our goal from the beginning in 2013 was fair compensation for the firefighters that is affordable for taxpayers. We took on the challenge to protect the city from a financial crisis. … This is a giant step in that direction.”

Sculley, widely credited with professionalizing the City and bolstering economic and infrastructure development, became the target of union criticism during police and fire union negotiation sessions and ultimately the target of a union-backed charter amendment election that limited the compensation for future city managers and led to binding arbitration. Though unaffected by the salary cap, she announced the conclusion of her 13-year tenure at the City just weeks after voters approved those measures.

“I have always been and always will be grateful for the work of our police and fire personnel,” she said. “Unfortunately they went without pay raises for five years and this did not come out in their favor. But it’s over and we’ve accomplished what we tried to do.”

“Had they negotiated over the past five years … they could have had a better contract,” she added.

Initially, the union wanted to explore the possibility of establishing a union-run health care trust that would take control away from the City. However, one of the fire union’s latest proposal during arbitration maintained the current plan structure but enforced a $150 monthly premium regardless of the number of dependents claimed. The new contract includes two plans union members can choose from – one of which has firefighters paying premiums for their dependents for the first time.

An evergreen clause, which the City failed to remove through a lawsuit, kept all the terms of the previous contract in place for 10 years except for annual base pay increases.

The union won the right to binding arbitration through a hard-fought City charter election in November 2018. Under the amended charter, the union unilaterally invoked the process after traditional negotiation sessions and private mediation talks broke down.

In the new deal, the arbitration panel maintained the legal trust fund for both firefighters and police, but the City can terminate its contribution within 180 days if the Legal Trust Fund Board fails to comply with these stipulations:

  • The plan must cover spouses including but not limited to divorce proceedings and to former spouses and employees, for a period of three years, in child custody and child support proceedings and contempt of court/enforcement of family court orders.
  • The plan will exclude criminal defense benefits for employees, but continue to cover such costs for dependents
  • The plan must require yearly submittal of an independent audit report to the City to include information about usage

If the changes were not approved by the trust – comprised of both police and fire union members – within 180 days, it would cease its contribution and instead increase a clothing allowance for each firefighter by $384 annually.

The panel of three arbitrators – two representing each side’s interest and a third, neutral representative – deliberated on the terms of the contract for weeks after hearing several days of testimony from City and union officials as well as hired experts and reviewing hundreds of pages of analysis and previous contracts.

The arbitration panel consisted of attorney Phil Pfeiffer, who was selected by the City; Portland, Oregon, labor attorney Michael Tedesco, chosen by the firefighters union; and retired Judge John J. Specia Jr., selected by Pfeiffer and Tedesco.

“This city functions best when its first responders and city hall leadership are working together as a team,” Nirenberg said, acknowledging that there’s a long road ahead to repair the relationship and not all firefighters are happy with the deal.

“I feel for them – which is why we wanted this resolved at the negotiating table,” he said, noting the new evergreen terms that increase premium payments each year. “The wages that were not increasing during the time that the union leadership kept them away from the table were wages lost.”

Time will help heal that relationship, he said.

“Hopefully this means we’re going to be breaking bread a lot more since we’re not in intensive negotiations and arbitration,” he said. “Firefighters in uniform perform some of the most difficult jobs that we rely on on a daily basis – bar none. That respect has always been there … the fact that this cloud has hung over us for six years has been dreadful. That cloud has now been lifted.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com

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