Fire union gets new contract after 5 years

No back pay, new health care part of terms handed down by arbitration panel

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association has a new collective bargaining agreement for the first time in more than five years.

Officials from the union and city both praised the new contract, which was handed down by an arbitration panel on Thursday. It includes multiple lump-sum payments and annual raises between 2% and 3% for firefighters, whose wages have remained stagnant since their last contract ended in September 2014.

Firefighters will also have to provide more money for health care costs under the new contract. The length of the hotly contested “Evergreen Clause,” which allowed firefighters to work under the terms of the previous contract while fighting over a new one, was cut from 10 years down to five.

The contract takes effect immediately and will last until Dec. 31, 2024. Both sides are bound to the terms decided by the three-member arbitration panel.

The new contract puts an end to a heated, six-year-long fight between the city and union that has included court battles, mediation and a campaign to change the city charter.

In July, the fire union used the power it had gained in a charter amendment to call for binding arbitration unilaterally.

SAPA President Christopher Steele said the union is happy with its new contract.

“This compensation plan and healthcare package protects the firefighters and the citizens and keeps us as one of the highest compensated Fire Departments in the great state of Texas,” Steele said in a news release. “Thank you to the citizens of San Antonio for helping make the 2018 Charter Amendment process a success."

Mayor Ron Nirenberg described the deal as fair to the city, firefighters and taxpayers.

“This is an opportunity to set aside the conflicts that have consumed our community and frayed relationships over the last six years,” he said in a news release. “This City functions best when City Hall and first responders work together as a team. We intend to take this opportunity for a fresh start and move forward. I want to commend City Manager Erik Walsh and his team along with my City Council colleagues for working collaboratively through this difficult process.”

Understand: Battle between the City of San Antonio and fire union

The city also faced a negotiating stalemate with the police union, whose previous contract also ended in September 2014. However, the two sides reached a compromise and began operating under a new contract in October 2016.

A comparison of the two contracts raises the question of whether the prolonged fight and arbitration process was worth it for the fire union.

Despite holding out for longer than the police union, the firefighters will have very similar health care to police officers. And although the two unions had previously received similar pay bumps in their contracts, that isn’t the case this time around.

The firefighters will receive several lump sumps through the five-year contract: 5% of their pay this year, 1% in 2021 and 0.5% in both 2023 and 2024. Their recurring wages will also go up by 10.4% over the course of their contract.

Meanwhile, the police union, despite getting only one, 3% lump sum in 2016, will see its members’ recurring wages grow by 14.8% over the course of its contract.

Additionally, the police officers have been getting pay increases since October 2017, while firefighters have been stuck on the same pay rate for the past five years.

Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who was at the heart of the fight until her retirement a little less than a year ago, said she feels “a little badly” for the firefighters.

“I think that had they negotiated with us, they could have ended up with a bit more," Sculley said. "But that doesn’t matter at this point. They asked for binding arbitration. The arbitrator made the decision. And so they have to live with that for the next five years.”

Steele, though, called the fire union’s contract “a big win.”

“We never saw one valued at that the entire time we sat in front of the city," he said. "And the arbitration panel gave me an award valued at a higher number than any time in the last six years.

Though they said they were satisfied by the new contract, too, city officials said they did not want to repeat the arbitration process.

“When we put a significant portion of our city’s budget process into the hands of a third party, there’s significant risk involved,” Nirenberg said.

“Frankly, I’d like to think it’s the last time we go through it,” said City Manager Erik Walsh.

Steele, on the other hand, spoke highly of the process.

“We’re not worried about the Evergreen clause because we have binding arbitration," he said. "So that at any time, if we have to go through this ever again, we really love the fact that having a third party neutral come in and determine -- because we believe that fighting like the city hall forced us to do it -- is bad for the public.”

While noting the option for binding arbitration was always available, Steele said he believes that we really like to always work with city hall. And we hope that we can continue to work with city hall on all future ones.”

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