Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan's efforts to resolve wage disputes with county unions foundered yesterday as a tentative settlement with county firefighters evaporated. Leaders of hundreds of other blue collar workers declared they could no longer negotiate with the county government.
Hogan, who argues that the county cannot afford to grant employes large wage increases under its new tax-limiting charter amendment, has been at an impasse for over a month with six locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) negotiating new contracts.
Yesterday, AFSCME leaders representing 1,400 workers, including those who maintain county roads, operate the county landfill and serve as jail guards, said that their members may walk out in a wildcat strike by next Monday because of a mediator's decision to call for additional outside help.
The AFSCME locals had asked the mediator from the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) to yield his jurisdiction over the negotiations, which under the county code would have allowed the unions to begin a 40-day countdown toward a legal strike.
"Fact-finding is a waste of time, and it was requested by the county as a stall tactic," said Paul Manner, the chief negotiator for the AFSCME unions. "We can't negotiate with Hogan. We feel now that only in a situation where a strike is imminent will he respond to us."
Meanwhile, Hogan's chief of labor relations Joseph Fagan, said he was "exasperated and frustrated" by a vote by county firefighters late last week to reject a tenative settlement in another contract dispute.
Fagan said the county would have to return to the table and "start over again" with negotiators for the 405-member firefighters union. The union said yesterday their members rejected the contract because they were not satisfied with its wage package.
The announcements by union leaders yesterday were the latest in a stream of denunciations Hogan has drawn from county labor leaders since his first months in office.
Hogan repeatedly has become involved in public confrontations with the AFSCME unions, whose leaders maintain that the executive has attempted to use the county's budgetary problems as a political weapon against them.
The tensions between the two sides have grown in recent weeks after county budget officials began predicting a surplus of as much as $8.3 million in this year's budget.
"It's obvious that there's a lot more money available than Hogan is willing to admit," Manner said. "And yet the county keeps telling us they can't afford to give us a reasonable cost-of-living increase."
Hogan and his negotiators, in turn, insist that the budget surplus, which they say has been created by cost-cutting measures, is desperately needed for next year's budget and that the AFSCME locals have refused to budge from unreasonable demands.
"They [AFSCME] want more than anyone else has gotten, and that's a very self-serving attitude," said Allen Siegel, Hogan's special negotiator in the stalled contract talks. "There's only so far Hogan can go for them in the name of good government. We can't let them kick us around.
Hogan's attitude about the stalled negotiations is more blunt. "They just don't seem to want to negotiate reasonably," he said.
Hogan's negotiators have offered both the AFSCME unions and the firefighters a wage package that includes a cost-of-living increase of 4.7 percent.
Both unions have indicated that they might accept the 4.7 increase, but have rejected the wage packages because of related wage limitations. Manner of AFSCME said yesterday that his locals viewed the increase as equal only to 3.9 percent because it would not be retroactive to July 1, when the unions' contract expired and the county's new fiscal year began.
Bob Fuller, the chief negotiator for the firefighters, said his members were unhappy about a provision in their tentative contract which reduced the increases in the pay "steps" -- or minimum salary levels for employees -- from 5 percent to 3 percent.