Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report
City of San Antonio negotiators again sat across from empty seats Tuesday morning during what they hoped would be the first time fire union representatives showed up to negotiate a new contract. The fire union has repeatedly said it won't negotiate until the City drops its lawsuit against the current contract's 10-year "evergreen" clause.
"We'd be there with bells on as soon as they drop that darn lawsuit," Fred Johnson, public information officer for the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, told the Rivard Report in a phone interview. "It's not absurd, we're just asking for [negotiations] to be done in good faith."
Despite that firm stance, the City's team has developed its first official contract proposal outside of previous court-ordered mediation efforts that collapsed one year ago. The proposal includes a 12-percent total pay increase over the four-year contract – 4 percent one-time payments and 8 percent recurring, a healthcare plan that would have firefighters' dependents paying a "modest" premium, elimination of the City's contribution to a legal trust fund for fire and police union members, and a six-month evergreen clause.
The most a firefighter would pay for coverage of both their spouse and children would be $346.47 per month, according to the City's calculations.
There is "no clock on it," in terms of a deadline by which the union would have to respond, the City's Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle told reporters after it became clear the fire union would not show up to negotiate. The failed negotiation session on Tuesday – and the first one hosted earlier this month – is also an opportunity to show the public that the City is working toward a solution, Coyle said.
To download the City's outline of its proposal, click here.
At the center of negotiations is the evergreen clause, which keeps the essential terms of the existing contract in place until a new contract is signed, but does not allow for wage increases. The fire union's contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014. Backed by City Council, the City filed lawsuits in November 2014 challenging the 10-year clause in both the police and fire unions' contracts. In order to keep the City's general fund below a Council-mandated 66 percent of the City budget, uniformed employees need to start contributing to their family members' healthcare cost if they are going to be covered by the City's plan, Coyle said.
"The evergreen clause is meant to provide a window for negotiations to occur, which is why it's egregious and irresponsible for us to have one that lasts this long," Mayor Ron Nirenberg told reporters in a separate interview. "[That] provides a disincentive for negotiation. That's not how it's supposed to work. What it's supposed to do is bring two parties together to the table with enough time to get an agreement done."
If he is still in office when the police union's contract comes up for renegotiation in 2021, Nirenberg said, he would want to reduce its eight-year evergreen clause even more.
Fire union members still have the same healthcare plan – which has no premiums for themselves or their family members – but haven't received a wage increase in three-and-a-half years.
“If you want to negotiate, drop the lawsuit. We’re not going to negotiate with a gun to our head," San Antonio Firefighter Association President Chris Steele said during a live interview Tuesday afternoon on Texas Public Radio.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association's contract expired on the same day as the fire union's, but the police union had been negotiating with the City before that. Those on-again, off-again sessions eventually led to a deal that was approved by City Council in 2016. That contract included a signing bonus, wage increases, an eight-year evergreen clause, a two-option healthcare plan that has some police union dependents paying premiums, and elimination of the City's contribution to a fund that pays for members' legal fees – but the latter term is contingent on the fire union agreeing to the same.
"When a year ago you signed an eight-year [evergreen clause] with the police … [and now are offering the fire union] a six month evergreen, how is that negotiating anything?” Steele said.
"The police contract is behind us," Coyle said. "What we're faced with now is the fire contract.
"These are two very different situations," he added later. "We have not even started a conversation with the fire union and nobody should expect that it would be the exact same agreement."
However, that agreement involved former Mayor Ivy Taylor meeting with police union leadership behind closed doors – outside the formal process. The police union had also vowed not to negotiate as long as the City pursued its appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
That's not a path that the current mayor, who voted against the contract as the District 8 council representative, is likely to take. However, Nirenberg doesn't rule it out.
"I will not bypass good-faith negotiations," he said. "I will not bypass the policies set by the council to achieve fairness for the fire association and financial sustainability for the taxpayer, but I will do anything in my power to make sure that we get a negotiation done."
During mediation sessions, which were recorded and are available to watch online on the City's website, the fire union proposed taking over the healthcare plan the same way it manages its retirement health plan and others.
"The City just has to cut one check and the firefighters will manage [health care]," Steele said, adding that firefighters would then cover any additional costs.
But that check is too big for the City to cut, Coyle said, and the fire union has not successfully managed health care in the past.
"The City has proven to be a much better manager of healthcare costs over time," he said. "I say proven because we have that model in place today in the retirement health care plan. It is a managed trust where money is put into it, and it's not managed by our third-party administrator. That retiree healthcare plan that the union president has said they like is only 36 percent funded and has a several hundred million dollar unfunded liability."
Meanwhile, the fire union continues its efforts to gather enough signatures from residents to get referendums on the ballot that would force the City to enter binding arbitration with the union, let voters decide a future city managers’ pay cap and tenure, make it easier to get issues on municipal ballots, and let voters decide on utility rate increases, among other things.
In an open letter issued to the union earlier this month, City Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Manny Pelaez (D8), and John Courage (D9) joined Nirenberg in asserting these petitions would be bad for the City.
"A politician who says allowing the people to decide is a bad thing, to me, is [a] corrupt politician," Steele said.
In the letter, the five council members argue that the referendum petition “calls for disruptive and expensive special elections on single issues by handing power to a small minority of voters,” thus taking away power from the people who elected the council members.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), a former spokesman for the firefighters and police unions, has said it's within the fire union's right to start petitions and the right of citizens to sign them.
“[Nirenberg is] accusing them of the exact same game-playing that he’s playing himself,” Brockhouse told the Rivard Report earlier this month, and these “goofy press conferences” are actually hurting the City’s case. “Their tactics are raising the profile of the firefighters’ cause.”
Steele called the City's meeting on Tuesday more "gamesmanship." He said he does not know how many signatures any of the petitions have received so far.