Fire contract talks stall again; city negotiators want to bring in a mediator

SAN ANTONIO – When the negotiating teams for the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association met for the first time in February, they were optimistic.

The previous contract had been forced on both sides through an arbitration process following a bitter, years-long battle through the courts, negotiating table, and ballot box. Both sides hoped they could finally hammer out a deal this time.

Instead, after eight bargaining sessions over the past five weeks, they can’t even remain at the same table, and city negotiators have suggested the two sides bring in a mediator to facilitate further talks.

The union has not said whether it will agree.

The city and union both said they still have a good relationship, but the possible move to mediation suggests things may not have improved as much as they’d hoped.

Pay is top priority

The city and union started miles apart on the biggest issue for both sides — firefighters’ base pay. The city first proposed 21.7% worth of raises over five years while the union asked for 37.5% over three years.

Despite increasingly complex counterproposals on how to structure the annual raises — including rolling previously separate incentive payments like clothing allowances into the calculations — there has been little progress finding middle ground.

The city still said the total cost of the fire union’s proposals is too expensive, and the union doesn’t believe the city is heeding firefighters’ concerns about their wages or feeling undervalued.

“You’ve seen firefighters and paramedics concede on many things, and we’ve seen the city concede on nothing, so that’s pretty much a ‘take it or leave it’ approach. I don’t even know how useful mediation would be at this point, because they absolutely refuse to make any concessions,” SAPFFA President Joe Jones told KSAT after Friday’s bargaining session.

Jones walked away from the table early during the morning portion of Friday’s session after telling the city team they were “not listening” to their firefighters and paramedics — something city negotiators denied.

Despite the possible move to mediation, Jones told KSAT the union and city have “good working relationships.”

Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, who leads the city’s negotiating team, similarly called their relationship with the union “strong.” She described bringing in a neutral mediator to lead the talks as “another tool that we have in our toolbox to be able to arrive to an agreement.”

The union has been itching to make up ground it has lost over the past decade, which has seen inflation grow by roughly three times the rate of San Antonio firefighters’ base pay. Meanwhile, the city wants to strike a deal quickly so staff can build the costs into the draft city budget in August.

With that in mind, Villagomez said the city started with a higher wage proposal than usual.

“Typically, the city will come low, the association comes high, and you meet somewhere in the middle,” Villagomez told KSAT. “We came at the middle.”

“We felt we needed to make a very strong proposal for our firefighters and to try to get something done as quickly as we could. That did not happen. We still have that big gap. And that’s why we’re recommending mediation as our next, tool that we have available.”

Not the first time

A mediator would not have the power to hold the two sides to a deal, but Villagomez said having a professional involved can help facilitate conversations on difficult topics.

The city and union unsuccessfully tried mediation during negotiations for the current fire contract, which runs through December. However, the union ended up breaking off mediation and used its newly-gained power to unilaterally call for binding arbitration, instead.

Unlike a mediator, an arbitrator does have the power to force a deal on both sides, which is what a three-member arbitration panel did in February 2020.

Firefighters viewed the resulting contract as underwhelming. They had hoped they would get raises to make up for more than six years of flat pay since the final raise of the previous deal in October 2013.

Instead, their base pay went up only 10.4% over five years, while inflation since October 2013 has been more than triple that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the negotiations, the union polled its membership and found most don’t think they’re paid fairly or feel valued.

“I think that our survey speaks volumes, and they’re (the city) not listening,” Jones said. “They’re either not listening or they don’t care, and I really don’t know. You can’t take arbitration off the table. You can’t take mediation off the table. We’re here with an open mind, and we’ve negotiated in good faith.”

State statute provides 60 days before negotiations are considered at an impasse. Though that won’t happen until after May 28, the city and union have already gone through all eight bargaining sessions they had originally scheduled.

Since they began negotiating on March 29, the city and union have proposed changes to at least 22 articles of the contract. However, they have tentatively agreed on only one.

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