No sparks as city and fire union officials begin contract talks

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

SAN ANTONIO – The friendly hallway chats between the City of San Antonio and fire union officials were the first sign that the flames of previous clashes might be truly quenched.

Negotiating teams for the city and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association sat down for the first time Thursday morning to begin hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement. After some cordial handshakes and conversation before the meeting, both sides said they were optimistic that they could sort things out themselves this time.

Considering how acrimonious the relationship was during the last go-around, it would be a notable step forward.

For more than five years, the city and fire union tussled in court, at the ballot box, and at the negotiating table after the union’s previous contract ended in September 2014. A deal was only reached in February 2020 when a panel of outside arbitrators handed down a contract that both the city and the union were required to accept.

That contract is set to expire at the end of the year. But the new deal will be negotiated with new faces at the helm of the city and union, who say it’s a new day.

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

“A lot of things have changed in the last five years, and I think it’s important for you to hear from us that our approach is different,” City Manager Erik Walsh, who became city manager near the end of the previous fight, said in his opening remarks. “Can’t change history, but we can certainly learn from it.”

The previous contract battle swirled largely around two people — Walsh’s predecessor, Sheryl Sculley, and former SAPFFA President Chris Steele.

Sculley’s determination to have police officers and firefighters shoulder more of their health care costs, which she warned would otherwise overwhelm the city budget, put her at loggerheads with both public safety unions.

Meanwhile, Steele’s willingness to fight City Hall was evident in SAPFFA’s choice to boycott negotiations in protest of a city lawsuit over a controversial “evergreen clause” in its contract. Under his leadership, SAPFFA also led a campaign to change the city charter to give the fire union the sole power to invoke binding arbitration during negotiations.

That change was paired with another successful ballot proposition to limit the city manager’s tenure and pay, a move widely seen as a referendum on Sculley herself.

But, like Sculley, Steele is out of the picture this time, having since retired from the department.

Instead, Joe Jones has led the union since January 2022. He says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming talks.

“So, not being directly involved in the process last time, but kind of watching very closely. Obviously, I can say that last time, it was very adversarial,” Jones told reporters after Thursday’s meeting. “Some of that might have been initiated out of our association. That adversarial relationship has been resolved, you know, through healthy relationships like we discussed yesterday.”

On Thursday, the city and union’s negotiating teams agreed to ground rules for the collective bargaining process but did not present specific proposals. That’s expected to happen at their next meeting on Mar. 29.

Though the city is keeping quiet about its priorities, the fire union has made it clear that pay is its number one issue.

Due to the years without a new contract and the underwhelming raises included in the deal they finally got, firefighters’ wages are only 10.4% higher than they were in September 2014. That’s been far outpaced by 29.6% inflation during the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The upcoming bargaining sessions will be the true test of the city and union’s new relationship, but both sides hope the civil tone holds.

“I will note that we have already agreed on 11 things. Right?” quipped SAPFFA Chief Negotiator Richard Poulson as he held up the list of ground rules. “We haven’t officially started, but, you know, we have preemptively started to agree on things, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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