Late Wednesday afternoon labor negotiators for Prince George's County strolled into County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's office and presented him with what they believed was an extremely favorable agreement that would avert an impending strike by 1,500 county employes.
Expecting congratulations on successfully resolving the longstanding wage dispute, the negotiators were surprised by Hogan's response. Angry at recent statements by County Council members who criticized his handling of the labor trouble, Hogan lashed out at the council and the unions and said he would not approve any contract, no matter how favorable to the county, that would look like he had capitulated to pressure by the two groups.
"A strike is sometimes good politics," he said, according to one account, when told that the union's strike deadline was just two weeks away.
After a marathon session lasting into the early morning hours yesterday, Hogan's legal advisers and several top aids tried without success to persuade Hogan to approve the agreement with some minor revisions.
The one hope to get Hogan's approval fell through yesterday afternoon, however, when a meeting arranged to neutralize the political atmosphere that angered Hogan, by drawing up a statement criticizing the council, resulted only in an agreement to continue negotiations next week.
Hogan said yesterday he could not approve any agreement right now because "the atmosphere for collective bargaining has been impared by vituperative comments and because of that I am not going to have the county government negotiating in this atmosphere period."
He denied making the statement about strikes making "good politics," but added: "Obviously we prefer not to have a strike but it's not the end of the world. You never want to go to war but sometimes you have to."
The county and the five locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been trying to negotiate a new contract since last February. However, the 1,500 county employes in the union who operate county snowplows, run the country jail repair roads and work as secretaries in county offices have been without a contract since July when the last one expired.
After months of mediation, the two sides met Wednesday in an effort to resolve their differences, which centered on cost-of-living increases, before the Feb. 29 strike deadline.
It was at this Wednesday meeting that the county's labor negotiators apparently felt they had resolved outstanding issues to Hogan's satisfaction.
What proved them wrong, and led to Hogan's rejection of the agreement without having seen it, were growing conflicts between Hogan and the County Council, especially council chairman Parris Glendening, Hogan's most vocal critic who does not hide his ambition to run for higher office, perhaps county executive.
Glendening in particular has criticized Hogan on his appointments and proposed bills to curb the executive's power. This week, when the council issued a warning to Hogan in response to a stern letter from the county executive to all county employes about the impending strike, it was Glendening who charged Hogan with getting involved in unfair labor practices.
Hogan had just read that charge in the Wednesday afternoon newspaper when his labor negotiators told him of their successful negotiation session with AFSCME.
"Hogan was livid at that article," one source said. "We spent the next few hours trying to calm him down."
As Hogan's top aides gathered round, and his son and close assistant Larry Jr. was called in from a party for Young Republicans he was hosting at the Ice Capades, Hogan insisted he would not sign any agreement if it would appear that the council and the union had coerced him into it.
Hogan said yesterday: "The unions were using the council and the chairman [Glendening] was using the unions just to get his name in the paper. All these statements [of unfair labor practices] were designed to force the executive branch to capitulate."
Glendening said yesterday the council "simply wanted the two parties to get back together . . . However, we were concerned that some things happened toward the end that we thought were illegal" and therefore sent Hogan a warning.
Hogan finally agreed to allow the labor negotiators to meet again, with one goal being to produce a statement criticizing Glendening or the council for statements about the contract dispute.
Tne negotiators met yesterday but no such statement resulted. Hogan would not discuss the meeting: his aides said another session is scheduled for next week and that economic issues other than cost-of-living raises still have to be worked out.