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

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:34 PM

After three years on the political margins, organized labor has a seat at the table. It did not come easily.

Unions delivered a barrage of phone calls, direct mail and door-to-door canvassers to help D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray complete a stunning upset of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in this year's city elections. But even that wasn't quite enough to earn labor a top role in Gray's transition.

A day after Gray introduced his 16-member transition team - which included a former mayor, a nationally recognized budget expert, a philanthropist and a former university president - Joslyn N. Williams, president of Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, said he was "concerned" that no labor leaders were among the senior members of Gray's transition team.

Now, Gray has quietly added Williams to co-chair the economic development team, joining D.C. Chamber of Commerce chief executive Barbara Lang and former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

The appointment reflects the balance Gray has tried to strike between acknowledging the contributions of unions to his election and facing up to the governing decisions that await him in the months ahead. On one hand, unions gave his campaign a volunteer base that helped offset Fenty's fundraising advantage. On the other, as mayor, he must tackle a budget deficit that could balloon to $500 million before his four-year term is up.

Williams said that he is now "satisfied that everybody's in the room" but that he still expects broader labor participation in the Gray transition and administration. "I want to make sure we have input in every one of the groups," he said.

But it is unlikely that every labor demand will be so easily met. Leaders of public employee unions, in particular, are hoping for a sympathetic ear; many city employees, including police officers and firefighters, have been working under expired contracts and are hoping for a more responsive negotiating partner.

Gray said unions will not get special treatment. "Contrary to any popular belief, there were no promises of anything," he said of organized labor's support.

About a year ago, the leaders of the city's largest public employee unions made the first of several private visits to Gray. They felt marginalized by Fenty, who was elected without broad union support in 2006, doubted labor's political clout in the city and had raised millions for his reelection bid.

Four men - Kristopher Baumann of the Fraternal Order of Police; George Parker of the Washington Teachers' Union; Ray Sneed of the International Association of Fire Fighters; and Geo T. Johnson of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - put the hard sell on Gray. They wanted him to give up a sure thing - reelection as council chairman - and run against Fenty in the Democratic primary only 10 months away. Johnson took to calling the group the "gang of four."

In March, their wish became reality.

Gray's victory has union leaders enjoying a new appreciation of their political relevance.

"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.

A "broad swath of insult" is what Fenty delivered, Boardman said. "Not only could you not work with him, he wasn't interested in seeking any counsel from anyone," Boardman said.

Nickles said that union leaders overstate the issue and that he had met with them several times on a variety of issues. But he said there were deep differences with public employee unions over the pace and scale of Fenty's reformist agenda, which sought the swift removal of poorly performing employees.

There are about 35,200 city employees, according to the city personnel agency; more than 31,400 belong to unions that are often at odds with Fenty.

Parker had become the face of the opposition to Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's reform initiatives; the administration presented police and fire employees with contract proposals that offered no pay raises; and workplace grievances languished because the appeals board wasn't hearing cases.

In late March, when Gray decided he'd enter the race after months of speculation, union support fell quickly in line. "Sometimes, when there are causes we support, it's tough getting our members to put their feet on the ground," Parker said. "It was not very tough this time around."

Union foot soldiers

During the two months before the Sept. 14 primary election, Chuck Brown, 46, joined a dozen or more of his fellow members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 and fanned out across the city, dropping campaign literature at the doors of residents in wards 4, 5, and 7.

"We knew that Vincent Gray supports organized labor; Adrian Fenty doesn't," said Brown, a resident of Washington Highlands in Southeast. "That's the bread and butter right there."

The unions made their difference with manpower. Fenty's $5 million war chest financed scores of paid campaign workers. But motivated union members lent the late-forming Gray campaign an instant field operation. Meanwhile, what little union support Fenty had in 2006 was not with him in 2010.

Putting a dollar amount on labor's contributions is not simple. Two labor-related political action committees funded anti-Fenty mail pieces and phone calls that went to the public at large. One of them, run by the local AFL-CIO council, spent about $400,000, Williams said. Johnson estimates that the AFSCME council spent about $150,000.

But unions are not required to report what they spend to contact their members, and that effort, labor leaders say, was extensive and unprecedented. And local organizations were joined by bigger players from regional and national unions.

"It was a great compensation for not having money," Gray said of the union volunteers.

Brown said he had become frustrated watching city construction projects draw workers from Maryland, Pennsylvania, even New York, while hundreds of his union brothers from the city were left unemployed. "That's what got me involved," he said.

His involvement didn't end with the primary. Brown and several of his union brothers have shown up at Gray's town hall meetings, pressing him on enforcing the First Source Agreement Program, which requires that contractors who receive city financing or tax breaks provide employee opportunities for District residents.

"Only thing we wanted was that," Brown said.

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