When it comes to D.C. employee raises, money isn’t everything

February 5, 2013

Whether D.C.’s men and women in blue get a raise may depend on more than money. (Mark Gail — The Washington Post)

Mayor Vincent C. Gray delivers his State of the District address Tuesday night, and — as I explained in Tuesday’s paper — he’ll be using the speech to explain how he plans to use burgeoning tax revenues to address long-deferred wants and needs.

One of those needs, Gray has hinted, and aides have acknowledged, is affordable housing — read Tuesday’s article for more on that. Another pressing matter he plans to address is the District’s workforce, which has been subject to pay freezes, hiring stoppages and furloughs at various points in recent years.

With financial data indicating a continuing revenue windfall, Gray could have tens of millions of dollars to spend on compensation for city employees. But when it comes to the District’s workforce, money might not be everything.

Now, for managers and nonunionized employees, it’s mostly everything — extra revenue could pay for overdue cost-of-living adjustments, for example. For unionized employees, it’s more complicated — and what union you belong to determines just how much more complicated it is.

Contract negotiations are generally confidential, and Gray administration officials have generally kept mum about how things stand. But as you consider what Hizzoner has to say Tuesday night, consult this guide to the state of D.C. government labor relations, ranked from most complicated to least complicated.

Police: It’s no secret that little love is lost between Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and MPD union leader Kristopher Baumann. Their conflicts, rooted in deep disagreement over the department’s management, explain in part why the two sides have failed to ink a new contract since the last one expired in 2007. But the rubber of the dispute — the pay scale for officers ranked sergeant and below has not been raised in seven years — is now hitting the road, with Gray and Tommy Wells, the D.C. Council’s new public safety chairman both pressing to get a deal done, in no small part to help in the recruiting of new officers. Washingtonian and the Examiner reported Monday that the union and the department are now jointly declaring an impasse — setting the stage for a mediator to intervene to try to bring the sides together. If mediation fails, the dispute would go to an arbitration panel, which would hear both sides then make a binding determination on contract terms. So how much of the dispute concerns money? Administration officials not authorized to speak about the negotiations say a main sticking point is whether officers will be entitled to retroactive payouts. But Baumann last week called that characterization “wildly inaccurate,” saying there are “significant problems across the board with how the District has approached” the negotiations.

Fire: City firefighters have also been working on an expired contract since 2007. Like with the police, retroactive raises are likely to be a sticking point, but there are also significant workplace issues under negotiations — including Chief Kenneth Ellerbe’s controversial proposal to rejigger the department’s scheduling from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. Given the strong feelings on either side of that issue, it’s unlikely the union and management will be able to come to terms without outside intervention. Union president Ed Smith said his union has already sought impasse. “In general terms, we are looking forward to getting a deal done,” he said last week. “It’s long overdue.” Without commenting on whether money was a major sticking point in concluding talk, he said he was glad to see city revenues ticking up: “We’re happy we’re not like a lot of these other jurisdictions around the country,” he said, where “it’s horror story after horror story.”

Teachers: It might be hard to believe, but D.C. teachers are again working on an expired contract, not even three years after coming to a landmark agreement. That said, the negotiations this time around are significantly less contentious. As my colleague Emma Brown reported in September, the battles over teacher tenure and performance-based compensation are not likely to be repeated. Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders said then that an agreement was close; he reiterated that Tuesday: “We remain close.” New revenues could ease the pain of replacing the private foundation money that helped pay for significant teacher raises in the last contract. But Saunders said “some problems cash doesn’t resolve,” and he’s looking for some assurance from Gray that the closing of more DCPS schools and the concomitant growth of the largely nonunionized charter sector will not pose an existential threat to his membership. It’s unlikely, however, that those questions will be definitively answered in the context of a contract negotiation.

Other unionized employees: All seems relatively hunky-dory for the approximately 10,000 other city employees — garbage haulers, school bus drivers, custodians, etc. — represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. District Council President Geo T. Johnson last week had nothing but kind words for Gray, who made good on a union priority last year by pushing furlough repayment checks through the D.C. Council. “He’s just been doing a yeoman’s job trying to bring some equity in the system,” he said. “We have the utmost faith in the mayor’s leadership in making sure public employees get a fair share.” As far as negotiations on a new contract go, he said, “Things are going well.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · February 5, 2013