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City of San Antonio and union representatives crowded into a small conference room Monday for the first of roughly a dozen arbitration sessions that will result in the formation of a new labor contract between the City and its firefighters.
A three-member panel of arbitrators will spend the next few weeks listening to testimony from experts on both sides before deciding on the final, binding contract.
The panel is made up of local attorney Phil Pfeiffer, who was selected by the City; Portland, Oregon, labor attorney Michael Tedesco, picked by the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association; and retired Judge John J. Specia Jr., whom Pfeiffer and Tedesco selected. Monday’s proceeding took place at Specia’s office off Northwest Loop 410.
The arbitration period will last 20 days with optional extensions if needed, City attorneys have said. Meetings are currently scheduled nearly every day through Tuesday, Dec. 17. There’s no time frame for the panel to decide on the labor contract but it’s expected to be completed within a couple of months. The panel has authority to take as much time as it needs to craft a binding contract while taking both sides’ proposals into consideration.
Donna McElroy, a labor and employment attorney representing the City in arbitration, kicked off discussions by explaining the City’s financial policies, stating the cost restraints it faces in compensating its public safety unions.
One element of the union’s argument against the City is that it has more money to compensate firefighters with than it lets on. Richard Poulson, an attorney representing the union, questioned the amount of money that the City sets aside in reserve accounts and how it spends revenues from its electric utility.
But the City’s financial policies, including maintaining reserve funds, are intended to provide a safety net when the economy inevitably downshifts, McElroy said.
“There simply is no hidden pot of gold out there,” she said during her opening statement.
At the heart of the years-long battle between the City and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association is a deep divide on health care benefits: how much the City contributes to it and how its managed.
Union members and their dependents pay no monthly premiums under the current contract, which expired in 2014 with an evergreen clause keeping the basic terms in place until 2024. The City has proposed that the fire union receive essentially the same benefit plan options that the police union agreed to in its 2016 contract. That deal includes a plan that has some police officers paying premiums for their dependents.
The union wants to establish a union-operated health care trust to set its own benefits and premiums for members. Ben Gorzell, the City’s chief financial officer, agreed with McElroy during his testimony that it was a “waste of time” to consider a trust because it is too expensive and offers the City little oversight.
The union has also proposed a $7,250 “signing bonus” and a 14 percent base pay increase during the first year to make up for lost wages that its members could have received over the last five years. Under the evergreen clause, members do not receive base pay increases but continue to receive longevity pay, health care, and other benefits under the previous contract.
McElroy argued that the union made a choice to enjoy premium-free health insurance in lieu of potential wage increases when it declined to negotiate. “That’s the agreement they bargained for,” she said.
Firefighters in San Antonio enjoy a rich compensation package compared to Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, and Houston, said Michael Nadol, a public finance and collective bargaining expert who compiled a wage comparison report for the City.
The package works well to attract and retain firefighters, Nadol said, but it may not match the surrounding labor market and economy of San Antonio.
“As of  total compensation is out-punching the City’s weight a little bit,” he said.
Poulson indicated that the union would call on its own expert witness, public policy analyst Amanda Guma, who has compiled a report for the union.
The union won the right to binding arbitration through a hard-fought public vote in November 2018. Under the amended City charter, the union unilaterally invoked its right to call for the process in July after traditional negotiation sessions and private mediation talks broke down.
During traditional labor negotiations, union membership and City Council would have to vote on any proposed contract. The new charter language awards the complete authority of the contract’s terms to the arbitration panel.
While the mood during the previous meetings was chilly and resulted in raised voices at times, Specia was careful to preserve respectful order in his conference room on Monday.
Specia, who stepped down from the 225th District Court in 2006, ensured the parties that the arbitration would be a “fair and impartial proceeding.”