Fire union breaks con­tract talks vow

Group’s leader had said ne­go­ti­a­tions would start within seven days of city drop­ping suit

San Antonio Express-News - - METRO - By Josh Baugh STAFF WRITER

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?”

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