Mayoral Politics and the Firefighters Contract: Power to the People? Not So Much.

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Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) speaks on behalf of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Two days after the passage of two of the three charter amendments, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) calls for the resignation of City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

After more than four years of political posturing, charter propositions, and litigation, the local firefighters union and the City of San Antonio are finally in serious negotiations. Both sides appear to have decided in their opening offers on the issues that really matter – wages and health benefits – that they need to prepare for the endgame.

The union proposed a five-year contract with a 27.5 percent hike in pay and medical benefits. The City put forth a one-year contract with a 2 percent one-time bonus but no increase in base pay. Also, the firefighters would for the first time have to pay for some of their health care.

If the two sides were any farther apart they would need SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for shuttle diplomacy. They clearly aren’t speaking to each other in these opening gambits. My guess is they’re speaking to The Arbitrators.

Last year the firefighter’s union proposed three charter amendments, two of which the people of San Antonio passed in November. A patently populist measure limited the pay and tenure of the city manager. The other one was not at all populist.

The police union contract provides that if the police union and the City reach an impasse in negotiations, the final decision on the disputed provisions is put to a vote of the people. The firefighters, who lost the vote on a charter amendment that would have made it much easier to put nearly all actions of City Council up to a popular vote, definitely did not want the voters to weigh in on their contracts. Instead, they narrowly passed a charter amendment that allows the union – and not the City – to unilaterally declare an impasse in negotiations at any time. At that point, a three-person arbitration panel will settle disputes. Each side will pick one arbitrator, and they must agree on the third.

A huge chunk – nearly one-third – of the City’s budget is taken out of the hands of elected officials and given to a single person, or possibly a small panel. With the high likelihood that an arbitration panel will “split the baby” with something between the proposals of the two sides, neither has an incentive to open with a reasonable offer.

Negotiators on both sides are under considerable pressure. Council members set as a serious goal holding the cost of public safety contracts – primarily police and firefighter salaries and benefits – at two-thirds of the City’s general fund.

Given the contract that the police union won two-and-a-half years ago, they’ll reach that goal only if the firefighters get somewhat less than their usual parity with police. The police won a five-year contract with a total pay increase of 14 percent plus a 3 percent signing bonus. But police are paying some of their health care costs for the first time.

Meanwhile, firefighters have had their salaries frozen for more than four years as their union leaders engaged in guerrilla warfare with City leaders. If they aren’t rewarded for their sacrifice, they might decide they need new union leaders.

The timing of the negotiations brings another factor into play: the mayor’s race. In late 2017, union chief Chris Steele was secretly recorded telling a group of firefighters that the union’s push for the three charter amendments was intended to accomplish three things. The first two were getting the city to drop a lawsuit against the union and to negotiate “objectively” with the union.

“The third thing is set it up to where May of 2019, we can put our own guy in the mayor’s office, which would be Greg Brockhouse in the mayor’s office,” Steele said.

Sources say Brockhouse, who used to work as a consultant for the firefighter’s union, has counted on the union to contribute heavily to his campaign. The union and its political action committee, like individuals, are limited to $1,000 to a mayoral candidate per election cycle. That limit will make it difficult for Brockhouse to raise anything like the $500,000 or so that a serious mayor’s race requires at a minimum.

But, sources say, Brockhouse has expected the fire union to spend hundreds of thousands through an “independent political action committee.” Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such committees are permitted to spend unlimited funds but may not “coordinate” with the candidate’s campaign. Such committees have become common in presidential and other federal races but have not yet been players in San Antonio mayoral races.

The healthy amount Brockhouse has expected from the union is not a pipe dream. After all, the union spent $504,000 just to gather the petition signatures for its charter amendments.

But the union may want to reconsider its commitment to Brockhouse, especially if its internal polls show him struggling. If the union becomes Brockhouse’s major funder and he loses – especially if he loses badly – it may be seen as a referendum on union demands. The voters will have spoken.

That could encourage City Council members to show fiscal discipline by instructing their negotiators to cap their offers at less than what the police won. And at that point, the union may be very glad it passed the charter amendment that puts the final contract in the hands not of the voters but of three very powerful arbitrators.

29 thoughts on “Mayoral Politics and the Firefighters Contract: Power to the People? Not So Much.

  1. I don’t get it. Sorry. I am grateful for our first responders. But I resent SAT firefighters do not contribute to the cost of their healthcare. I am a small business owner employing 30+ people and provide the best healthcare possible for employees, with their contribution. This is a cautionary tale SAT, don’t let unions ruin our city with their agenda.

    • Don’t let this unions actions speak for other unions.

      It is a fair criticism of the way this union has decided to act for 4 years.

    • The whole story is rarely told as it doesn’t make for compelling headlines. The history of the contract between the city and the firefighters includes years of raises given up-traded for health benefits. You won’t ever find a story about the firefighters sacrificing annual raises to save their health care.

    • VAH the first responders first argument with the city was to include their families in the free medical as well that is what started this whole mess that the Mayor Castro and current mayor and city manger said no, that the first responders will have to pay for their immediate family medical expense’s.

  2. San Antonio voters were duped by Chris Steele and his merry band. It never was about supporting first responders. It was all about taking power for themselves. Not the rank and file, but the union bosses.

    • Not the rank and file? Who elects tge union officers? They have a bloated opinion of themselves, and think the world owes them s living.

  3. Because of the Firefighters Union and it’s leadership, San Antonio has lost its AAA Bond rating. Further reductions by other ratings agencies is a very real prospect, because of this contract issue. Chris Steele has hurt every taxpayer and every citizen of this City.

  4. I’m frustrated by what appears to be misinformation from many sources leading up to my vote against the props. First was statements that the 10X salary was going to be in the $200-300K — less than deputies were making. Then the day after the election It crossed well over $300K — reasonable and a 20% raise over the first salary we gave to attract Sculley to SA. My first thought was the lowest paid employee got a raise, but not the case.

    The other shows up here. I’ve read, since the election that the arbitration would be one each arbitrator selected by each side and a third selected by those two. Better than I understood pre-election and see implied in this article. Just want to formulate my opinion from the facts vs implications of carefully selected words from biased sources.

  5. Casey is wrong. There won’t be a single arbitrator. The rules call for three arbitrators. One selected by the City. One selected by the union. One selected by the two arbitrators. That’s a different dynamic. Aside from the fact that it’s much more expensive to have three arbitrators than one, three-arbitrator panels are usually less severe in their decisions. They tend to split the proverbial baby more often than a single arbitrator.

    • Thanks for pointing this out. We will make the correction. Having 3 doesn’t give me much comfort, though. Three people deciding the city budget, and it could often boil down to one — the one both sides agree on.

  6. “[PACs] are permitted to spend unlimited funds but may not “coordinate” with the candidate’s campaign”. Ha! I have a bridge to sell you if you believe Brockhouse and the union won’t “coordinate”. Every step in the Brockhouse dance has been well choreographed. He’s theirs- bought and paid for. Brockhouse is a walking-talking conflict of interest. Thankfully, when he loses, he’ll fade back to the land of irrelevance and he’ll be a footnote like Carlton Soules, Elisa Chan, and their ilk. Then, the fire union will have to find another useful idiot to make bleating sounds that dumb people confuse for compelling ideas. Reinette King? Cynthia Brehm? Mike Berlanga? Queta Rodriguez? Manuel Medina? All of those have soapboxes for sale are a fluent in bleating. Maybe Jack Finger could be convinced to run so that he can save the republic. I’d pay to watch that dumpster fire burn then fizzle out.

  7. Guess we can forget about the two sides reaching an agreement. Well, the Fire Union request to run their healthcare system points to their lack of sincerity to finalize a CBA. Time for Bexar County Fire Department!!

  8. A close examination of the city’s (and county’s) interest groups influencing policy decisions, representing enormous public resources, is in order here. Let’s try very hard to set aside the personalities involved — union & private sector — and allow citizen/voters determine the positive & negative outcomes from the “interests” involved, which shows how the game is played. Our mainstream press has not done a very good job over many years dealing with this reality behind-the-scenes; it suggests we have little investigative reporting & perhaps a fear of disclosing inconvenient truths about the dynamics at City Hall & the Courthouse. We will not ever have a perfect system, but at least we should be more knowledgeable & better informed re: whose interests are being served & what stance officials take, by following the money.

    • Yesss… like the every day person has the ability to recognize/understand what you elude too. Stand Up a County Fire Department! ( All goes back to public education by tax payer dollars).

  9. I am afraid your fears of a lack of investigative journalism are very real. This is not because of the efforts of writers, editors, and the staff at San Antonio Express news or the rivard report. This is squarely on the shoulder of the market here in SA and all across the US. We are more connected than we have ever been before in in ways not even imagined. However, juts because we are connected does not speak to the strength and integrity of that connection. Unless and until more SA residents spend more money on quality journalism that is not about clicking but is about understanding then those in the profession will be fighting for every cent wherever the clicks are.

  10. The City and powerbrokers propaganda starts once again. The voters have spoken and they elected this process to negotiate the firefighters contract. Stop the propaganda and get to work on what the voters mandated.

    City hall insiders, and the media owned and operated by the San Antonio establishment always trying to manipulate this city. Time we vote AGAINST all the sell outs that were against the three charter amendments, we can start by voting against Ron Nirenberg for mayor.
    Time to take back our city, county, and country.

  11. What more do these guys want?! they’re already being paid well. Heck if we voted on charter propositions that checked they’re salaries, and return our AAA bond rating, I’m sure it would pass!!

  12. The fire union spent over half a million dollars campaigning for the referendums. Follow THAT money. The head of the fire union makes almost double what the city manager did, and notice the firefighters aren’t campaigning to dock his salary. Throughout the entire day at the polling station local firefighters in their working gear were sitting outside the polling places talking up the propositions. Has anyone asked if they were on the clock while doing this? I have a different opinion about who was trying to “control the city” and who were “sellouts”

    • The city spent vastly more than the union on the vote no campaign – while you’re following money make sure you track it all. The union president makes nothing close to what Sculley was paid. Not a single firefighter worked the polls in city uniform, that would have put them in position to be terminated. They were all most definitely off the clock.

  13. Casey says that the firefighters union didn’t want the voters having the opportunity to weigh in on their contract but wasn’t it the firefighter’s union that brought Proposition A to the table asking exactly for that…voters to have more say in City Council decisions by making it easier to challenge them?

  14. The city should take a close look at privatizing the fire department. I lived in Denmark, and they have operated with a privatized fire department in many of their cities for decades. Watch the fire fighting video video on this page:
    Think of it as being like the establishment of charter schools. The city contracts with a private company such as Falck to provide firefighting services. The contract can specify conditions and requirements that must be met, and the contract will come up for review and renewal every few years. The city can lease and/or sell their fire fighting facilities and equipment as a part of the transition. The private company decides on a one-to-one basis whether to hire former city employees or to bring in their own, but the employer for all of them becomes Falck rather than the city. The way the local firefighters union has pushed and previous city councils have given in has led us to the point that public firefighting is too expensive and it could be cheaper to go private.

    • Acadian ambulances had a pattern of pushing cities to privatize EMS. They would offer to take over the service at no cost to the city. Later they would return and explain they weren’t making enough and raise the price time and again. Increased costs to citizens, complaints. Privatization gets what you pay for.

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