Amid a last-minute lobbying flurry by opposing business and labor interests, the D.C. City Council will skirmish today over a bitterly contested measure to curtail the city's costly program of compensation for injured workers.
City union leaders, hoping to forge a coalition with other community groups, urged their members at a rally Friday night to fill the council chamber to its 200-person capacity in a show of opposition to the bill they regard as regressive.
Businessmen, in a campaign sparked by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, flooded the offices of the 13 council members with letters pleading for passage of the measure and saying that the program's skyrocketing costs are driving jobs out of the city into the suburbs.
In the past seven years, the cost of workers' compensation insurance premiums paid by employers has ballooned by more than 500 percent. In that time, the maximum benefit has risen under a cost-of-living escalator from $70 a week to nearly $400. Benefits in Maryland and Virginia are much lower.
The program pays benefits to workers injured and to survivors of those killed while on the job.
A year ago, Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, introduced legislation -- drafted in large part by the Board of Trade -- to freeze benefits and tighten administrative provisions.
An attempt by Hardy to push the bill through the full council last summer was aborted when The Washington Post reported that much of her proposed report on the measure was lifted verbatim from a Board of Trade lobbying document.
Last month Hardy revived the bill and it was approved by her committee. It will reach the full council membership for the first time today.
Today's scheduled action is procedural, but it could prove decisive. The question to be decided is whether the bill is in proper form to be put on the calendar for legislative consideration Feb. 5.
Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), chairman of the Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee, has said she will move to have the bill tabled for further study.
But Rolark may not even get a chance to make her motion. Council Chairman Arrington Dixon (D) said yesterday that this morning's meeting "is not the appropriate place" from a parliamentary standpoint to act in any substantive way on the bill. He said that should come only when the bill is taken up for consideration next week.
Robert E. Peterson, president of the AFL-CIO Greater Washington Central Labor Council, was joined by other union and community leaders Friday night in calling for a large turnout to support Rolark at today's meeting.
About 150 persons who attended the rally in the drab Laborers Union meeting hall on New Jersey Avenue NW heard attacks on the bill and its chief sponsor. They were urged to telephone council members at their homes over the weekend.
The NAACP and the Urban League both announced their opposition to the bill, and the Rev. Robert L. Pruitt, pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church -- one of the city's largest black congregations -- said all working people would be victimized.
Ron Richardson, secretary-treasurer of Lcoal 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, criticized Hardy for her role. "This is the Willie Hardy who was the lady of the people when she was trying to get elected," Richardson said. "Now she's the lady of the Board of Trade."
Hardy, reached yesterday at her home, brushed aside the criticism, and insisted that she was acting less in behalf of the Board of Trade than for such businessmen as Garrett Mays, a Ward 7 liquor store owner.
Premiums paid by Mays on a dozen employes soared from $800 annually to more than $3,500 in just three years, she said -- a measure of the pressure on businesses large and small.
Several council members said yesterday that they had received no calls at home over the weekend by union members, despite the union leaders pleas for such action.
"That kind of thing could backfire," said David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1).
He said that he is undecided on the Hardy bill but leans toward scheduling it for consideration.
Clarke said Ray Ottenberg, president of Ottenberg's Bakers and chairman of a Board of Trade committee on workers' compensation, lobbied for the bill with him. Clarke also said a delegation from the Communications Workers Union lobbied against it on Friday.
Like other council members, Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3) said she has received "a great deal of letters from businesses on their letterheads" urging passage of the bill. "I've not had much on the other [union] side," she said.
Shackleton said she supports the Hardy bill.
Richardson, the restaurant workers' union official, said the union position was supported as of Friday by six of the 13 council members -- one vote short of the majority needed to adopt Rolark's tabling motion if Dixon permits her to make it.