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As next D.C. mayor, Gray will have to deal with debt to unions

Then the Democratic mayoral nominee, Vincent Gray laughs with volunteer Karen Williams as he works the polling place at Senior Wellness Center on Election Day.
Then the Democratic mayoral nominee, Vincent Gray laughs with volunteer Karen Williams as he works the polling place at Senior Wellness Center on Election Day. (Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

"The common wisdom going into this thing was, the mayor has all this money, there's no way you can beat him - that was proved wrong," said John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents 8,000 city hotel and restaurant workers. "We can turn someone out who we think is not serving the interests of all the people."

Now Gray has the job of reconciling an ailing city budget with the wishes of the newly empowered labor community. His strongest supporters - the public employee unions - place a premium on preserving members' jobs, hundreds of which have been cut in recent years. And Fenty supporters fear that Gray won't have the stomach to fire bad employees because he is beholden to unions.

"I think they've got a chokehold on the chairman," said Attorney General Peter Nickles, a Fenty confidant. "I fear for the return of a culture of complacency. . . . It's the question of what people think every day, every hour, every minute what they can get away with."

Johnson and others said labor is merely looking for some respect and recognition.

"The workers are not above making some sacrifices, but what we are universally opposed to are unilateral decisions," he said. "I'm open to sit down and explore how we can save. . . . Anything that would keep people's jobs."

Gray said that he shares labor's goal of saving as many jobs as possible and that he is optimistic that union leaders will be open to other concessions. "I think you've got to sit down and say, 'Look, here's the reality of our financial situation.' You try to do what you can to save jobs, first and foremost," he said. "Giving raises is just not something that's even an option at this point."

Gray, however, dismissed the use of employee furloughs, which other jurisdictions have turned to in budget crunches, as a measure that "doesn't solve the long-term problem."

Labor leaders have political imperatives apart from jobs. Sneed and Baumann have clashed with the fire and police chiefs, respectively, and have pressed for management changes. Parker, who finds his union amid a national battle over education reform, wants modifications to a controversial teacher evaluation system.

Parker and other union leaders insist that they did not buy Gray's absolute loyalty with their political support. "They are way off track if they think Vince Gray is going to be controlled by the Washington Teachers' Union," Parker said. "If you talk to him for five minutes, it's very clear. He listens to all sides, but Vince has his own mind."

The Fenty factor

Washington is devoid of the manufacturing base that made such cities as Baltimore and Philadelphia labor strongholds, but the workers in the city's core industries - construction, hospitality and government - have maintained some local influence. Although labor leaders have rarely been kingmakers in the 36 years since the city gained home rule, virtually every mayor - until Fenty - paid them some deference.

Joslyn Williams remarked on the contrast between Fenty and his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, who met with labor leaders nearly once a month.

Fenty met with the AFL-CIO's Washington area council once during his tenure, Joslyn Williams said. That was weeks after his inauguration, when Fenty was trying to gain support for his takeover of the city schools. Some labor leaders rebuffed Fenty, and he never sought their support again, the AFL-CIO official said.

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