In happier times, the Prince George's County Department of Treasury employed 21 secretaries, cashiers and clerical workers who had worked, lunched and partied together for years.
"We were family," said clerk Henry Huff.
They are family no more. On Tuesday, 17 of the workers joined a strike by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, while four others quit the union and returned to work. Each morning, as the nonstrikers sidestep the strikers on their way to work, the words between the two sides have become fewer and harsher.
"You're damn right I call 'em scabs. Every day," Huff declared. "They betrayed us. Theyre cutting our throats and watching us bleed to death."
"Sometimes you've got to sacrifice principle in order to survive," said one nonstriker who, like the other three, was afraid to identify herself. "The county has been good to me, but I'm afraid. I'm really afraid . . ."
The rift at Treasury is duplicated to one degree of another in offices, garages and garbage dumps around Prince George's County. Every county agency has been touched by the strike, and longtime friends and colleages have had to choose between joining the majority and walking out or remaining at work in lonely dissent.
While labor leaders and county government officials dispute its size and impact on county services, the 1,575 workers themselves feel the strike, no matter how it is finally resolved, will have a profound and debilitating effect on employe relations and morale for months, even years to come.
"Two of my cashiers, people I ate with, are in there working, watching me and getting paychecks," said Helen Wall, chief Treasury cashier and a county employe for 19 years. "I suffer, they benefit. Even if the strike ends today, how can I still feel comfortable or even professional around them?"
At the Treasury Office in the county administration building, the slack created by the strike has been partly taken up by workers shifted over from other sections in the Department of Finance. They and the remaining employes man the computer terminials and cash registers and serve the county residents who come to the office to pay taxes and parking fines and purchase business permits and licenses.
Yesterday the workers were kept busy answering phones, opening mail and collecting money at the counter but occasionally during lulls in business the nonstrikers ventured into the hallway and stared out the window at the Treasury pickets in a courtyard below.
"I changed my mind about the strike 10 times last week," one woman said. "Monday night I didn't sleep at all.Everyone said, come with us, come with us,' but I couldn't.
"I hope I'm right. Emotionally, I'm with them, but I couldn't survive without working."
"I know they can't understand that," she said. "When I go home at night, I watch my rear-view mirror."
While the Treassury strikers admit there have been harsh exchanges between them and several of their dissenting co-workers, they insist no one has been threatened.
"They just feel guilty," said Audrey Guice, secretary for 12 years who walked out. "I hope they feel worse when it comes time to buy groceries."
Most of the day the strikers congregated in tiny groups, discussing the nonstrikers and the other Treasury employes who hold union classified jobs but don't belong to the union. Mention of their names prompted frowns and scoffs.
"When they were sick, who went to the hospital to visit them, who sent them fruit baskets and flowers?" Guice said. "When it comes to money there are no friends."
Inside the feeling was not so bitter.
"I just wish [County Executive Lawrence J.] Hogan would finish this mess," a cashier said. "The strikers -- all of -- deserve the raise. The longer he plays politics, the worse it's gonna be.
"The hot heads," she said, can't keep calm forever."
To avoid the pickets, the woman now arrives at work a half-hour earlier and leaves by way of a side exit.
Not all her colleagues are so wary of confrontation. "Why should I feel ashamed about anything?," one woman asked. "We're the strong ones. Don't you thing what we're doing is brave?"
The chants and shouts continued outside, while the cash registers rang inside. Once, at noon the two sides spoke briefly.
A nonstriker stuck her head out the door and whispered to Wall outside, "Helen . . . We've got some ripe sweet corn. Want some?"
Wall thought a moment, then answered, "Yes, Yes, that sounds good."