After Breakdown, San Antonio's Fire Union Forces Contract Talks Into Arbitration


Fire union chief Chris Steele speaks to the press at a 2018 news conference on propositions A, B and C. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • Fire union chief Chris Steele speaks to the press at a 2018 news conference on propositions A, B and C.
San Antonio's firefighter’s union has shut down mediation with city officials and invoked its unilateral right to force talks on a new labor contract into arbitration.

The move means the parties will enter a process under which they're bound to abide by the ruling of a third-party panel.

The union — which has been without a contract for more than four years —  gained the right to initiate arbitration with the passage of Proposition C, approved by San Antonio voters last November. (If you need a refresher on the bitter fight over the fire union's three ballot proposals, here you go.)

The city and the union resumed negotiations on a new contract in February, though little progress seems to come out of a series of 19 meetings held since then.

“It was not something we did lightly as a union,” Ricky J. Poole, attorney for the firefighters, told the Rivard Report. “This is a process that we hoped we would be able to reach an agreement without needing. … We view arbitration as one of those tools that could be utilized to try to reach that ultimate contract. Unfortunately, negotiations have not gone in a way that would lead to that contract.”

San Antonio and its firefighters have been locked in a lengthy, often ugly dispute over wages, health coverage and other benefits. The city sued the union over the 10-year "evergreen clause" in its contract, only dropping the claim after the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the firefighters' favor.

In a press release, city officials said they extended a generous compensation offer to the union but did not offer details, citing confidentially agreements related to the mediation process.

“[W]e will continue to focus our efforts on developing a budget for council consideration that meets the city’s needs in light of current fiscal constraints,” City Manager Erik Walsh said in a prepared statement. “The firefighter’s union elected to pursue arbitration — we will prepare for that process. We remain committed to reaching a collective bargaining agreement that is fair to our employees and fiscally responsible for our taxpayers.”

Observers have speculated that the union might move the talks into arbitration after Mayor Ron Nirenberg won reelection last month. His opponent, former District 6 councilman Greg Brockhouse, has done extensive consulting work for the union and was the sole member of council to support its ballot propositions.

“I am disappointed that the fire union leaders opted to pursue arbitration,” Nirenberg said via a news release.

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