Williams Pledges No Mass Layoffs
By David A. Vise
Williams became anathema to some city employees in January 1997 when he abruptly fired for incompetence 165 people who reported to him as the District's chief financial officer. In a city where about one-third of the employed residents are on a public payroll, the firings have been an oft-discussed undercurrent to the mayoral campaign, with politically rooted rumors that a Williams victory would not bode well for city workers.
Williams counters with a pledge to be a tough but fair mayor. The mass 1997 firing, he said, was a one-time event necessitated by the city's deepening financial crisis.
"I don't believe people should fear they are going to be arbitrarily, summarily dismissed because of the whims of the boss," Williams said in an interview. "In some cases, working through proper due process, some people may need to find another job. . . . But it is going to be . . . with proper notice and process."
Some traditional Democrats, including many labor leaders and city workers, find it difficult to trust the bow-tied financial maven's current pledges. Their continuing skepticism has bred fear and rumors among the city's rank-and-file about what would happen to District employees in a Williams administration.
Last week, Williams unsuccessfully sought to overcome that lack of trust in a lengthy meeting with the local branch of the AFL-CIO, during which he promised to build a partnership with organized labor if elected mayor. After the meeting, the labor council, which endorsed D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) in the primary, decided not to endorse either Williams or his Republican rival, Carol Schwartz, in the Nov. 3 general election.
"People are still suspicious of Anthony Williams," Joslyn Williams said. "He said flat out that 'I will not do it again.' . . . He made a strong case, a very strong case. However, he just could not overcome the events of the past."
In a city where many workers viewed a job with the District government as a lifetime guarantee of employment, Williams readily acknowledges shattering the prevailing culture. In some parts of the city, Williams's bold stance remains a badge of honor and makes him an appealing candidate.
Elsewhere, despite his promises on the campaign trail to treat employees justly if he becomes mayor, he still faces considerable skepticism.
"There is generally a fear or an uneasiness with him with government employees, the unions particularly . . . and the inner-city community," said Chuck Hicks, past president and interim director of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "He has to show people we can trust him."
Hicks said the problem is not just that Williams fired workers. It was the way he did it -- without regard for collective bargaining agreements, with public statements about workers' incompetence and with security guards escorting stunned workers from their offices as television cameras captured the event.
"After that branding and publicity . . . when you say I was fired by Anthony Williams, who wants to hire you for anything?" Hicks asked.
Williams's far-reaching actions as chief financial officer have been upheld in a series of federal court decisions and on appeal, where judges have ruled that Congress gave him the authority to dismiss employees in financial jobs "at will." He has been lauded by many supporters for taking strong action to hasten the city's financial recovery and has received the endorsement of the city's teachers union.
But don't bother telling that to former city workers who toiled for the District for decades and suddenly found themselves unemployed. David Leonard, a 50-year-old with a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, had worked for the city since the spring of 1973. After he was fired in July 1996 from his job as associate director of legislative affairs in the budget office, Leonard filed a lawsuit against Williams and struggled to find comparable employment. He has worked at various jobs -- including a stint as a bartender -- and currently has a part-time job at MCI Center.
"The way in which they went about removing people from office was basically an ambush," Leonard said. "People including myself went to work, with absolutely no idea what was taking place, were called into a meeting and told you are removed immediately, pack up and get out by the close of business today. . . . I'm concerned about [Williams's] judgment, and the manner in which he handled this, and what it suggests about the kind of person he is."
Gerri Washington, a self-described workaholic, said she received a steady stream of excellent personnel evaluations during her District government career, which began in 1973. In 24 years, Washington said, she worked her way up from a clerk typist to a contracting specialist who purchased computer equipment and supplies. The night before she was fired along with 164 other workers in 1997, Washington said, she had stayed up until 2 a.m. working. More recently, she has attended mayoral debates and has protested the firings as an abuse of power. But it was a single word uttered by Williams that bothered her the most.
"That word 'incompetent' just grates on me," Washington said, adding that she was totally blindsided by her firing. "It came as a total shock. No one ever said you weren't doing a good job."
Washington, who recently got a job with a private District firm after retraining herself and working in temporary positions, said anyone who would fire people without due process doesn't deserve to be mayor.
"He is too cold," she said. And Washington doesn't put any stock in Williams's pledges to work cooperatively with organized labor, dismissing those as campaign promises. "He is saying what he thinks people want to hear right now," Washington said. "I don't trust him or anything he says."
Williams says he has learned much since the 1997 firing and views working with labor as a top priority. He also says there is no reason why people shouldn't trust him now. After all, he argues, he followed through on his threat to dismiss employees while serving as chief financial officer, so why not believe his new stance as a mayoral hopeful?
"People should trust Tony Williams because when he says he will do something, he does it," Williams said. "I honor my commitments."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company