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San Antonio’s firefighters union on Tuesday invoked the terms of Proposition C, forcing the City of San Antonio to enter binding arbitration on terms for a new labor contract.
Proposition C, which was approved by voters in November 2018, gives the union the unilateral authority to call for a panel of arbitrators to decide and impose contract terms as the arbitrators see fit.
The union and City have 15 days during which each side will select an arbitrator. Those arbitrators will have 10 days to select a third, neutral arbitrator who will preside over the panel. If one can’t be agreed upon, then the American Arbitration Association may appoint one.
“It was not something we did lightly as a union,” Ricky J. Poole, an attorney representing the union, said of the move to binding arbitration. “This is a process that we hoped we would be able to reach an agreement without needing. … We view arbitration as one of those tools that could be utilized to try to reach that ultimate contract. Unfortunately, negotiations have not gone in a way that would lead to that contract.”
The two sides were just “too far apart” on too many issues, he said, declining to go into specifics but citing previous points of contention on health care, wages, workers compensation, and vacation time.
City Attorney Andy Segovia said the City’s negotiating team was surprised the union choose this path but had prepared for it.
“We obviously were hoping and expecting that we could reach an agreement through mediation,” Segovia said, “but arbitration is a tool and we were fully aware that they had the ability to exercise that. … We’ll be prepared to go down that path now that they’ve elected to do that.”
Once started, the arbitration period will last 20 days with optional extensions if needed, Segovia said. There’s no time frame for the panel to return a decision, but it’s expected to be made within a few months.
During these sessions, according to State law, the board can call for testimony from witnesses and experts, request records from each party, or ask for “other information the board considers relevant.”
It would be the first public safety contract in San Antonio arrived at through binding arbitration, Segovia said. “The arbitration panel does not have the luxury of kicking the can down the road … they will have to make a decision one way or another.”
Negotiations on a new labor contract to replace the one that expired in 2014 began in February, and little seemingly was accomplished during 10 public meetings. The City pushed for less-expensive health care plans for firefighters, and the union pushed to take administrative control over those plans. In April, the two sides agreed to enter into private mediation sessions with former Texas Supreme Court Judge Deborah Hankinson, signing several agreements to extend those sessions. They met nine times during mediation and the sixth extension would have expired on Friday, July 5.
Tuesday’s move came after the negotiating teams met on June 26 and 27, according to a City spokeswoman. The union sent a letter to the City declaring an impasse in negotiations and notifying City Attorney Andy Segovia that it would invoke Prop C about 15 minutes before union officials held a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
“I am disappointed that the fire union leaders opted to pursue arbitration,” stated Mayor Ron Nirenberg in a news release. “Throughout this process, we have sought an agreement that is fair to taxpayers and rank-and-file firefighters. Our goal is unchanged, and I look forward to a fair resolution from the arbitrators.”
A statement from the City said it would not disclose details discussed during mediation sessions, which are intended to be confidential, but that it offered “a generous, affordable and balanced compensation and health care proposal that would have maintained our firefighters as the best compensated in the state.”
“The firefighter’s union elected to pursue arbitration – we will prepare for that process,” San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh stated. “We remain committed to reaching a collective bargaining agreement that is fair to our employees and fiscally responsible for our taxpayers.”
Firefighters and emergency medical technicians have gone without a wage increase for more than four years after its previous contract expired in September 2014, but a 10-year “evergreen clause” keeps most terms of the previous contract in place.
Many have speculated that the firefighters union would inevitably invoke Proposition C after Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who used to work for the public safety unions, lost his bid for mayor in the June runoff election. The fire union had refused to come to the table for years until Brockhouse issued an open letter to leadership asking them to negotiate.
Asked if he thought the results of the mayoral election impacted how negotiations played out, Poole said he was doubtful.
“I don’t know that that would have made any real difference,” he said. “[The mayor is] one vote on this contract. So I really can’t say what would have happened.”
Fitch Ratings, one of the nation’s three major credit rating agencies, cited Prop C as cause for downgrading the City of San Antonio’s bond rating in December. That ended a nine-year run of gold star ratings from all three agencies. Fitch’s report said the City had “diminished expenditure flexibility” and faced financial uncertainty as a result of the charter amendment.
“I think arbitration involves risks for both sides,” Poole said. “I think that’s really, in a lot of ways, why you do try to negotiate an agreement. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
While an arbitration panel can take into account budgetary impacts to the City, City officials are concerned that the cost of the imposed contract terms will force the City to cut funding for other public services or find other revenue sources.
It’s unclear if arbitration sessions will be open to the public and to media, but representatives from each negotiation teams have said they want them to be public.
That would ultimately be up to the arbitrators, Segovia said. “They have a lot of discretion and leeway as to what the rules of engagement will be.”
The City reached a labor contract deal with police officers in 2016 that includes health care plans that have some police officers paying premiums for their dependents. Currently, the City covers the premiums for firefighters’ dependents, a main driver for ballooning costs.
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. Some terms in the police union contract are dependent on the firefighters union agreeing to the same terms. So the end result of binding arbitration could have implications that stretch beyond the firefighters’ contract.
Currently, public safety spending – including park police and the police and fire contracts – account for 63 percent – $794.4 million – of the City’s $1.26 billion general fund.