These days, the halls of the Prince George's County Administration Building hum with talk of strikes, picket lines, possible firings and County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's hard line with the unions.
The words of one clerical worker talking to a group of coworkers echo the fear of what the impending strike will bring that pervades conversations.
"I really wonder if our chances of getting a contract with the Ayatollah Hogan are any better than our chances of getting the hostages back from the Ayatollah Khomeini," said the middle-aged secretary.
Perhaps no one better understands the frustration and the drama than Paul Manner, chief negotiator for the five unions seeking a new contract from the county for 1,500 employes. For Manner, who has lived in his native Baltimore for 29 of his 33 years, the year-long contract talks have presented the most awesome challenge of his 10-year career as a labor contract negotiator.
"We're in dire straits," said Manner, as he sat back on a sofa-stool on the lower floor of the County Administration Building, watching as the union members he represents prepared to go home for the day.
"I'm afraid if we extended the hand of peace to the county executive right now, he might just bit it off," he added. "We want peace, but we're not sure it's possible with a man like this (Hogan)."
Manner, an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran who has been involved in the negotiation of more than 100 contracts in seven states, says that the present talks have been the most trying and frustrating of his career. He has never negotiated for so long with an adversary as tough and unyielding as Hogan, he adds.
Manner points to the unfair labor practices charges filed against the union, an attempt at. an injunction against correctional officers to keep them on the job, and the decision by the executive to reject a contract proposal accepted by his negotiating team as examples of the kinds of "confrontation tactics" the county has used to keep the unions in line.
It is this style, says the union leader, that has caused negotiations to drag on for more than a year, about twice the time normally needed to negotiate such a settlement. And, he notes, it is highly unlikely that the final wage increase granted will go much over 4 percent, or a third of the inflation rate now gripping the country.
"Never have so many suffered so long for so little," says Manner, hinting that the suffering is probably far from over.
For a brief period a few weeks ago, it appeared that a settlement had been reached and a strike averted.
After ironing out the last wrinkles of a proposed contract, Manner shook hands with county negotiators and walked out of the room with a smile on his face -- thinking he had seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and believing, in fact, that he was out of the tunnel.
A few hours later he got word from Hogan's office that the county negotiators had overextended themselves, and had agreed to an unsatisfactory contract.
"I believe that it was politics that killed the contract," says Manner. "Hogan thought the newspapers would give the County Council credit for reaching a final agreement, not him,"
The union has now notified the county that it intends to strike next Monday. The employes, who include clerical workers, landfill operators, jail guards and building inspectors, are among the lowest paid in the county government.
"I've never seen a management negotiating team held in contempt like this," says Manner. "We shook hands on an agreement and left the room. When that happens, you expect what you agree on to stick."
Manner says it was the first time such a thing has happened to him in the 10 years he has sat at negotiating tables.
"This whole process has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my career," he adds.
From Manner, that means a great deal. He is a non-lawyer who frequently does battle with two or three lawyers at the negotiating table. He is the man in the gray pin-striped suit who has to win and keep the confidence of 1,500 blue-collar and clerical employes who belong to five different unions.
Moreover, he must play diplomat with opponents who can make negotiations difficult and the final contract hard to enforce.
But toughing it is nothing new to Paul Manner. After graduating from high school in Baltimore, he dropped his plan to become a veterinarian or a football player and went off to joint the Marines.
There he proved himself a Marine's Marine, rising to the rank of sergeant.
He capped off a five-year military career with 14 months in Vietnam, leaving only after a severe injury forced him to come home.
After recovering, Manner worked as a corrections officer in the Paxtuxent Institute. He spent 14 months there, earning a reputation for being one of the few guards able to use talk instead of intimidation to quiet prisoners.
Manner also earned the respect of his peers, eventually winning election as shop steward for the corrections officers.
In addition he played linebacker for a semi-professional football team in Baltimore for about five years.
"I must have broken every bone in my body during the time I played," says the burly blond.
Eventually, Manner quit both jobs. He said he was not making enough money as a football player and was tired of the danger and fatigue of his work at the prison.
For the past 10 years, Manner has worked for various branches of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Maryland and other states. He's taken part in the negotiation of numerous contracts and on occasion has helped coordinate strikes when negotiations failed.
"I love what I do and I also respect and have a real affection for the county employes I represent," said Manner, who is single.
Manner sometimes sounds like a protective parent when he talks about union members.
"If someone did something to my employes while they were on the picket line, I would feel compelled to do something," says Manner, who has offices in Baltimore and Forestville.
"I i don't mean I would do anything violent, because as I've told my members, our strategy is defensive and protective," says Manner. "But I can tell you this: I would feel compelled to help them out if they were in trouble."
While he wonders if it will be possible to avert a strike, Manner believes that the 1,500 clerical and blue-collar workers he represents will eventually get a fair contract.
"The teachers, the firefighters, and the police are already with us," he says. "I think that county citizens will be too, when they realize that we're dealing with an irrational executive who puts politics before the welfare of the county.
"I feel that in the end we will prevaial," he added. "I feel frustrated now but I don't intend to give up until we get an agreement."