Fire union breaks contract talks vow
Group’s leader had said negotiations would start within seven days of city dropping suit
Firefighters union President Chris Steele has said repeatedly over the past four years that he would begin contract negotiations within seven days of the city dropping its lawsuit against the union.
But more than a week after the city did just that, he hasn’t made good on his promise. His failure to do so has raised questions, even from his closest ally on the City Council.
City attorneys officially dropped the suit Nov. 29 and sent a letter to the union’s lawyer requesting that the two sides begin working on a new contract. It was the same day City Manager Sheryl Sculley announced that she plans to retire.
But city officials have received no response to the letter, and Councilman Greg Brockhouse said Thursday that he was “at a loss why they won’t return to the table.”
Steele and the union did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Councilman Manny Pelaez said he wasn’t happy with the lack of action.
“I took the union at its word when they said that they’d be at the table in seven days after the lawsuit was dropped. I hope that Chris Steele says what he means and does what he says,” Pelaez said. “The ball is in their court, and I’m waiting for him to show up and do what he promised to do.”
Pelaez said he wants to see firefighters receive raises sooner rather than later, voicing a sentiment shared by other council members.
“It’s time to do the work that taxpayers expect us to do. No more cute gimmicks. No more games. No more press conferences. No more ad hominem or snarky attacks. No more excuses,” he said. “It’s time for leadership. Let’s pray they don’t waste this opportunity to do the right thing.”
Brockhouse, meanwhile, said he’s “disappointed” with the union.
“I met personally with leadership, and I asked them to return
to the table as quickly as possible,” Brockhouse said. “The deal’s at the table, and you’ve got to come back.”
The union has been successful with its political endeavors, he said, and has made its point at the polls, where voters sided with the union on two of the three charter amendments it placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Voters supported an amendment that places salary and term limits on future city managers and another that gives the union the unilateral ability to declare an impasse on contract negotiations and head to binding arbitration.
Brockhouse said he considers union members “family” but that he doesn’t make decisions for them. Sometimes, he noted, family members don’t agree.
“It appears that we’re coming to a point where we’re sideways,” he said.
“I can’t help them if they don’t come to the table. I can’t support not negotiating,” Brockhouse said. “I think there’s a willpower on the council to want to help them, to want to get them a deal now.”
Firefighters haven’t received pay raises since their contract expired Sept. 30, 2014. Because of its decade-long “evergreen” clause, the contract stays largely intact until it’s replaced by a new one.
There are a couple of key areas of conflict, including health care. The city wants firefighters to take on a higher percentage of the cost. Under the old contract, firefighters pay no monthly premiums for themselves, spouses or children and have very low deductibles and annual out-of-pocket maximums.
The city sued in 2014 over the evergreen clause, claiming it was unconstitutional. The courts disagreed and handed losses to the city at both the district and appeals court levels. This summer, the Texas Supreme Court rejected a request to hear the case — the ultimate defeat for the city.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he hopes the union will start talks with the city.
“As mayor, I am extending my hand because we need to negotiate a deal. There’s an open seat at the table,” he said. “The taxpayers and firefighters deserve a fair deal to put this conflict behind us. Our door is still open, and I am still ready to negotiate.”
Nirenberg has long been at odds with the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, and observers say he’s trying mightily not to pick a fight with Steele, hoping that he’ll work with the city on negotiating a new contract.
Steele is the longestserving fire union president in the country, according to Brockhouse, and has widespread support from his membership. But some firefighters are starting to question their union leader.
A member of the Fire Department, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak without fear of retaliation, chastised the union boss for not fighting for members’ best interests.
“More and more firefighters are realizing that Chris Steele doesn’t represent us,” he said. “He’s not working toward a contract. He’s not interested in advancing the needs and desires of the membership en masse.”
Pelaez said Steele’s tenure is not an issue for the council and that it’s up to the union membership to determine his fate.
“That said, it wouldn’t be unfair for them to ask why nobody is at the table negotiating better salaries when council and the mayor are offering it,” he said. “If the core function of a union is to collectively bargain, why aren’t the negotiators showing up to do the job they’re paid to do?”