Union Bosses’ Latest Bad Idea: Setting City Hall on Fire

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Gabriel Rosales raises his hand at passing supporters at the announcement of the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 624's choice for the next Mayor of San Antonio at City Hall.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Members of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association gather in front of City Hall in March 2017 to endorse a candidate for mayor.

I don't know about you, but if my family ever suffers a fire at home or has to call EMS, I really hope Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Council members, or City Manager Sheryl Sculley do not show up at the front door.

Nothing personal, but they were elected and hired to run the city, not put out fires or drive ambulances. Conversely, the firefighters union bosses have no business trying to break through a back door to ransack City Hall, set it on fire, and with it, the voter-approved city charter.

Yet that is exactly what Chris Steele, the president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, has threatened to do with a petition drive that aims to undermine city leaders and radically amend the city charter that empowers leaders to govern responsibly.

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Christopher Steele states how SAFD has a history of unfair disciplinary actions.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association President Christopher Steele

Steele calls its "San Antonio First." I call it political arson.

Most of us place our first responders on a pedestal, especially in these troubled times where anything can and does happen anywhere. Some of us don't feel the same about headline-seeking union bosses who have failed for more than three years to accept the city's invitation to come to the bargaining table in good faith.

Unfortunately, Nirenberg, City Council, and the 8,000-plus civilian City employees led by Sculley now face a political fire that could become a significant distraction, not unlike the divisive and destructive three-year war waged by the police union.

Nirenberg spoke forcefully against the union bosses while addressing the San Antonio Bar Association last Thursday at the Club at Sonterra. I was on stage with the mayor for a conversation on city issues and later asked him to restate his comments for publication here.

"What is happening is not the firefighters themselves, it’s a few bullies – the union bosses who push everyone else around – who are manipulating thousands of firefighters and an entire city," Nirenberg stated. "If they get what they are seeking and push unwitting voters to sign their manifesto, it would rip up vast portions of the city charter that the San Antonio public approved by a vote."

Steele did not return a call seeking comment for this column. Here's a brief recap of the news.

Steele's latest political assault on City Hall was first reported in this article in the Express-News on Feb. 20 following a press conference at City Hall that day. Click here to read the union statement and the response from City officials.

Three separate union petitions are being circulated to require an election to amend the city charter. The first petition would cap the city manager’s compensation at 10 times the lowest-paid, full-time city employee, impose an employment term limit of eight years, and require a supermajority vote at City Council to approve employment contracts.

That would reduce Sculley's pay by 40 percent, and handcuff elected officials trying to recruit her replacement with the promise of termination in eight years to any prospective candidates.

“This is more gamesmanship from a fire union that refuses to negotiate a contract that expired more than three years ago,” Sculley said in a subsequent statement. “The only way to give firefighters the compensation they deserve is for the union to come to the table and bargain in good faith.”

Steele has been president of the fire union for nearly 15 years, the City’s rebuttal noted, longer even than Sculley's 12-year tenure.

A second petition would require the City to enter into binding arbitration rather than resorting to the courts and lawsuits when it wants to challenge the union on issues like the 10-year evergreen clause in the currently expired contract. That clause keeps all contract benefits in place for up to a decade when a collective bargaining agreement expires and the union refuses to bargain for a new contract.

The current firefighters contract expired on Sept. 30, 2014. The constitutionality of the evergreen clause is the subject of a city lawsuit that is now in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court following two rulings in lower courts favoring the union. The problem with binding arbitration is that arbiters are selected from a union-approved list and tend to rule in the favor of unions. To rule otherwise is to risk being struck from the list by union leaders and losing out on lucrative assignments.

A third petition would make it easier for the firefighters union and other groups to challenge city ordinances passed by City council, reducing the number of signatures required from 75,000 to 20,000, and extending the petition deadline from 40 to 120 days.

That would make the firefighters union, in effect, a new branch of municipal government, challenging any City Council ordinance that union officials do not like or that they choose to oppose to create political chaos.

"[The union's plan] would devastate this city," Nirenberg stated. "If ever there were a call to arms for reasonable, informed San Antonians from all walks of life to say, 'Enough is enough' with fire union antics, this is it. Residents, businesses and organizations need to decide whether they will speak out against this insanity or whether they will stand aside and watch. History will tally the names of those who remain on the sidelines."

We can extinguish this fire before it spreads. Both sides can set aside, for the moment, the contentious issue of the evergreen clause now before the state's highest court, and come to the bargaining table in good faith to address pay, benefits, and other issues. The firefighters are not going to get a better deal than the police. There is no great mystery to the outcome here, no matter how many years the union holds out.

A tentative agreement can be reached pending a court ruling on the evergreen clause. City leaders can go back to governing, and firefighters can put down their petitions and return to the vital work of protecting people and their property, for which we are eternally grateful.

 

13 thoughts on “Union Bosses’ Latest Bad Idea: Setting City Hall on Fire

  1. Holy moly, histrionics from Chris Steele, the Mayor, and from you, Robert!

    That all said, what kind of leverage can we-the-people, directly, place on the SAFD union to return in good faith to the table? I can call my councilperson and my mayor directly, ’cause I’m a resident who helped elect ’em. I guess I can leave messages on their voicemail, Facebook page and Twitter account? Very odd feel to think about it like that. Would having a verified Twitter account, and then subsequent texts directed to my reps, concerning this subject, then give my reps more ammo the bargaining?

    And of course, thank you for your opinion, Robert. I think I would like the fire-metaphor when my caffeine levels are lower.

    • Dang it all! — “then give my reps more ammo for bargaining?” — one day, RivardReport and EN.com will have an edit feature like Facebook (or, I just should not drink as much coffee and be more careful….) 🙂

  2. The Firefighters Union serves a great purpose in representing its membership, not only in contract negotiation, but in employment and benefit disputes.
    However, this important task has been taken too far. Destruction of the city and personal attacks through two mayoral administrations is unfounded, vengeful and wrong.
    Our Bravest are among the best paid in the state and in the county and to act as cry babies only shows an infantile union leadership that is willing to go to any length to get what it deems appropriate and not what is right.
    Back off Union, the majority of San Antonio citizens are not on your side. Our City Manager is the reason you are able to obtain a raise. Without her competent management our city would not have the excellent financial standing it now has. Tell me Union Leaders…..How many other cities have a AAA credit rating? Our Mayor has the gumption to stand up to your bullying tactics.
    Too bad you are not subject to Taft-Hartley Laws and binding arbitration on your contract. That might put you in your place. You don’t know how good you have it!

    • “You don’t know how good you have it”, that sounds like something an abusive husband might scream at his wife.

      Er the 4th Court of Appeals, the city’s claims dont cut the mustard and thus the Firefighters are within their rights to expect the city honor the previous agreement which includes a 10 year evergreen clause.

      Here is an interesting article from mysanantonio.com: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/Fourth-Court-sides-with-fire-union-rejects-11952538.php

      “The 4th Court of Appeals EVISCERATED the city’s arguments in its opinion on the city’s appeal, released early Wednesday. “We hold the City failed to establish as a matter of law that the evergreen clause or the CBA as a whole is void or violates public policy,” Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa wrote for the court. “We conclude the evergreen clause merely extends the duration of the CBA, but standing alone does not create a ‘debt.’ The CBA as a whole is not unconstitutional on the ground asserted by the City because it contains significant provisions that, even as extended by the evergreen clause, do not create unconstitutional ‘debt.’”

      The article continued quoting Councilman Greg Brockhouse:
      “Including the lawsuit against the Police Officer’s Association, the City has now lost on this issue three times in Court and wasted almost a million taxpayer dollars doing so,” he said in a statement. “The full City Council should review this course of action and go on the record in a public vote on continuing the lawsuit to the Texas Supreme Court.”

      • The Firefighters Union serves a great purpose in representing its membership, not only in contract negotiation, but in employment and benefit disputes.
        However, this important task has been taken too far. Destruction of the city and personal attacks through two mayoral administrations is unfounded, vengeful and wrong.
        Our Bravest are among the best paid in the state and in the county and to act as cry babies only shows an infantile union leadership that is willing to go to any length to get what it deems appropriate and not what is right.
        Back off Union, the majority of San Antonio citizens are not on your side. Our City Manager is the reason you are able to obtain a raise. Without her competent management our city would not have the excellent financial standing it now has. Tell me Union Leaders…..How many other cities have a AAA credit rating? Our Mayor has the gumption to stand up to your bullying tactics.
        Too bad you are not subject to Taft-Hartley Laws and binding arbitration on your contract. That might put you in your place. You don’t know how good you have it!

  3. For the past year I have enjoyed reading the “Rivard Report”. Unfortunately, this article reads as if it had been written by Sculley herself. Non-partisan news is what I and millions of others are looking for these days. I don’t want to read a one sided article, and don’t come back with “Steele wouldn’t response to a request for interview”. You said it yourself the case between the Firefighters and the City is going ALL THE WAY TO THE SUPREME COURT. Why, because the city has lost every attempt to break the Evergreen Clause and force negotiation. The Firefighters aren’t required to negotiate because of the Evergreen Clause. Sure the city wants them to come to the table…. so that they can take benefits away just like they did with the Police (who also have Evergreen protection, but due to Sculley and McManus relationship, went to the table and lost benefits for its membership). The use of the term “Union Bosses” by the Mayor and the Rivard Report is ABSOLUTELY biased and is trying to persuade the reader to take a negative view of their actions. The more correct term would be “Union Leadership”, because that is what they are doing. They are leading the fight against the heavy handed and prejudice actions of the City Manager. Trust me, keep up the partisan journalism and you will find your credibility and readership shrivel up and blow away.

  4. I was asked to sign the petition after going to early voting. I signed one petition and then stopped. The person who asked me to sign said I was signing to give firefighters better pay and benefits. When I started asking questions about why I needed to sign 3 times and then I started reading the petitions, he started trying to rush me and trying to prevent me from reading the petitions. I was able to read one of the petitions and when I saw that it said nothing about firefighter pay or benefits I stopped signing and walked away. If the fire fighters union is going use manipulative tactics to get people to sign their petition, then I will no longer be on their side. This is exactly how organizations lose votes of faith!

  5. Chris Stelle is an dolt and labor unions are a disguised form of organized crime. Look at a chart of nationwide union membership from the 50’s to now. It has the same trajectory of throwing a rock off a cliff. The US Supreme Court is hearing a landmark case about mandatory union dues today. This doesn’t apply in Texas but it will be a very interesting decision regardless. Ask any union member what they want and the answer is always “more”. If these union members don’t like their job they have the right to quit. Let the free market rule.

    I’m also tired of hearing about the “first responder”. The real first responders are the fine folks in our nations military and their jobs are a lot more dangerous.

    • Could not agree more. And every union leader wants to be a Harry Bridges.

      Over 80% of emergency calls to SAFD are for EMS. No EMS vehicle goes out, however, but that it is not accompanied by a fire engine. Perhaps that’s to give the drivers some practice. The logo for the union harkens back to Mrs. O’Leary.

      As a friend who was formerly on the Council once said to me, there’s a lot of downtime in fire houses, most of spent complaining about pay and pensions.

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