San Antonio fire union president says contract talks should be departure from past acrimony

Pay raises are top priority for firefighters, whose wages have gone up only 10% in 10 years

SAN ANTONIO – Have the embers finally cooled between the City of San Antonio and the union representing its firefighters?

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association will begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the city on Thursday morning, 10 months before its current contract ends. SAPFFA president Joe Jones hopes this time will be different compared to the yearslong battle they went through last time.

“It doesn’t appear that anybody wants to revisit the past,” Jones said.

For over five years, the city and fire union tussled in court, at the ballot box and the negotiating table after the union’s previous contract ended in September 2014.

Jones, who has led SAPFFA for the past two years, said the union has “worked diligently to reestablish healthy working environments with elected officials, community leaders, city leaders, city management.”

“Obviously, through empirical evidence, (the city and union’s relationship) was very unhealthy previously,” he said. “And that wasn’t good for the City of San Antonio. And it was also not good for firefighters and paramedics.”

Pay is a top priority

Firefighters’ pay is the hottest priority for the union for the upcoming contract talks.

Firefighters went more than five years without a new contract or a pay raise during their last battle. When they finally got a new deal in February 2020, the annual raises were relatively low and have since been far outpaced by inflation.

“It was almost perceived as a form of punishment because it was so bad,” Jones said.

The firefighters received several one-time, lump sum payments as part of their current contract, but the recurring raises have only bumped their wages by 10.4% compared to the end of the 2014 contract.

Meanwhile, inflation during the same period has nearly tripled to 29.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jones said they’ve begun seeing people leave the department earlier than usual, not only retirees but younger SAFD members as well.

“Historically, we’re a destination department. People leave other departments to come to San Antonio,” Jones said. “And what we’ve seen, by and through our poor compensation over the last decade, is we’ve seen a decline in people leaving other departments to come to us, and we’ve seen an increase in our talent leaving for other departments because they get similar pay — sometimes even better pay — for far lower output.”

Though he wouldn’t say how big a pay bump the union is aiming for, Jones said both the union and top city officials are “cautiously optimistic” about “trying to get this done quickly and, hopefully, painlessly.”

Any deal the two sides reach at the bargaining table will need to be approved by both the union’s full membership and the San Antonio City Council.

The union’s current contract ends Dec. 31, though an “evergreen” clause could keep its terms in place through the end of 2029 if a new deal isn’t struck by then.

An even longer 10-year evergreen clause had been at the center of a more than five-year battle between the city and the union leading up to the approval of the current contract in February 2020.

Five-year fight

As the police and fire union contracts were ending in September 2014, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley took aim at the health benefits encased in both, which included no health insurance premiums. Sculley said the cost of those benefits would eventually overwhelm the city budget.

But both unions had evergreen clauses that would allow the terms of their contracts, including those health care benefits, to continue into 2024. Seeking to get rid of that leverage, the city tried to get the clauses overturned in court.

Though the city and police union struck a deal in 2016, the fire union refused to come to the table until after the city eventually dropped its lawsuit in November 2018.

In the meantime, the union led a 2018 campaign to change the city charter to give them the unilateral right to call for binding arbitration, essentially bringing in an outside group of negotiators to force a deal on both sides.

Voters agreed, and the union invoked its new power in July 2019 after negotiations with the city stalled.

But given the deal an arbitration panel handed down to the city and union in February 2020, it is debatable whether it is worth it.

Firefighters still ended up with more expensive health care benefits, similar to the police union, while also getting lower pay bumps, despite having gone longer without a raise due to the protracted battle.

Things are even more stark when looking at the compounding effect of police officers’ larger and more numerous raises in the past decade.

Police officers’ pay has grown 18.8% since the end of their 2014 contract. Once their next raise kicks in April, their pay will be up nearly 23%.

Meanwhile, the firefighters have received more one-time lump sum payments, but their pay has only gone up 10.4% in the same time frame.


Christopher Steele, the previous SAPFFA president who led the union through that fight, has since retired from the fire department. Through his tenure, he was known as a combative opponent to City Hall.

Jones was formerly the department’s chief of staff, though he was removed from his command staff role and demoted from assistant chief to the rank of battalion chief after accusations of workplace intimidation and hazing cadets arose in 2016.

He ran for union president in 2021 and took office in January 2022. This will be his first contract negotiation.

“I don’t think you can find somebody more opposite in personality, drive, professionalism, behavior than Chris and myself,” Jones said. “He seemed to enjoy fighting and attention, and I don’t enjoy either one of those, quite frankly. And the examples just continue to manifest from there.”

Steele did not return a call seeking an interview for this story.

The City of San Antonio did not make any city officials available for KSAT to interview ahead of the official start.


The two sides will meet for the first time at 10 a.m. Thursday at the International Center at 203 S. St. Mary’s. Collective bargaining sessions are open to the public, and a city spokeswoman said they plan to stream the sessions on YouTube.

You can find more information on the process and current contracts on the city’s website.

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Adam Barraza is a photojournalist at KSAT 12 and an El Paso native. He interned at KVIA, the local ABC affiliate, while still in high school. He then moved to San Antonio and, after earning a degree from San Antonio College and the University of the Incarnate Word, started working in news. He’s also a diehard Dodgers fan and an avid sneakerhead.

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