Nirenberg Asks Fire Union to Put "Petty Political Drama" Aside and Return to Bargaining Table

click to enlarge Chris Steele announced his "San Antonio First" campaign on Feburary 20 - Facebook via San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association
Facebook via San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association
Chris Steele announced his "San Antonio First" campaign on Feburary 20
San Antonio's fire union has been circulating three significant petitions outside of city polling locations: One that would decrease their boss's salary, another that would prevent the city from suing them, and another that would make it easier for them to get petitions like these expedited. 

Chris Steele, president of San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, says this is, in part, a reaction to the city's recent approval of City Manager Sheryl Sculley's $550,000 salary and the December water rate hike. Steele says this campaign (which has been given Trump-esque name "San Antonio First") asks voters to "take part in the ultimate form of government," but it's unclear, for now, exactly what that means. According to Steele, both the San Antonio Tea Party and LULAC (often political enemies) support these petitions.

If each petition successfully gets 20,000 individual signatures in the span of six months, the issues will be placed on a ballot for vote.

According to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the trio of demands from SAPFA would be "devastating" to the city and its public utilities, ultimately costing taxpayers millions and placing public interest groups above elected officials.

"Make no mistake, signing these petitions is the same as signing up for future tax increases and fees," Nirenberg said at a Wednesday press conference, noting the years-long impasse the city's reached with SAPFA over contract negotiations.

Steele says this isn't retribution for the city's refusal to bow to the union's contract demands, it's just a move to allow the public more say on city decisions. History, however, makes this hard to believe.

It's been four years since the city of San Antonio and the fire union came to a standstill over contract negotiations. The city, under the leadership of then-Mayor Ivy Taylor, refused to renew SAPFA's contract without slimming its unusually exorbitant benefits package — and union leaders wouldn't budge.

Since then, the city's taken the union to court over its so-called "evergreen clause" — a union policy that allows members to keep wages and benefits for up to 10 years during a collective bargaining standoff (like what was happening in San Antonio.)

You may remember this same drama playing out with the police union, the San Antonio Police Officers Association, around the exact time. In SAPOA's case, Mayor Taylor caved to the pressure, approving a contract in 2016 that allowed the union to get off without any of the previously-requested disciplinary reforms.

Then-councilman Ron Nirenberg, however, voted against the SAPOA contract. And now, as mayor, he's remained resistant to SAPFA's push to follow in the police union's footsteps. The city's lawsuit against the union remains tangled in the court system.

At the Wednesday press conference, Nirenberg called out President Steele's resistance to negotiate — but dodged mentioning him by name.

"One union boss prefers to perpetuate his own petty political drama at the expense and well being of both rank and file firefighters and the people of San Antonio," Nirenberg said. "Our firefighters deserve better. San Antonio deserves better. It's time for the union boss to do the right thing and come to the table, instead of wreaking havoc on the city's ability to serve our citizens."

Many members of city council stood behind Nirenberg in support as he spoke Wednesday — including its (arguably) most conservative member, Councilman Clayton Perry. Councilman Greg Brockhouse, however, was conspicuously missing. 

Before joining city council in 2017, Brockhouse was largely known for spearheading the fire union's anti-streetcar campaign in 2014, eventually securing enough petition signatures to force a public vote. When he ran for council, the fire union jumped to support him. And now, Brockhouse has become the SAPFA spokesperson (and its eyes and ears) in council chambers.

Brockhouse, who's the first on council to shoot off a press release on hot button city issues, has remained unusually absent in the discussion — at least, for now.

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