Don't tell Lawrence Wright that District government employes are over-paid, underworked bureaucrats. Don't suggest to him that the workers are unreasonable when they demand the same pay raise federal employes are getting.
Don't bother Wright with abstract arguments about home rule and the city's need to cut its links to the federal system. And don't advise him to wait till next year while lawyers argue over the meaning of the city's new labor relations law.
Lawrence Wright is a $5-an-hour laundry worker in the nether regions of D.C. General Hospital, working in a world where dank tunnels run beneath the buildings like steam-heated catacombs, where on summer days, workers drip sweat into a thousand meal trays. The laundry he works in is a clanking inferno, where rows of huge machines rattle madly as they rock their moorings and workers hand-feed endless streams of linen into mangles as old as they are.
"Everything from abortions to cancer, we get the linen," Wright said. "Look how old this equipment is, and in the summer you wouldn't send a dog to work in this heat."
As laundry workers who gathered around him nodded their agreement, Wright said, "Before the union we weren't ----; before the union you had to do what the man said. Now at least they respect the union. They know they have to deal with us."
They are paid $5.09 an hour, or $203.60 a week before taxes, and, Wright said, "Pork chops cost us just as much as they cost you." Wright doesn't think that pay is enough, and he is not inclined to accept a 5 percent raise when federal workers are getting 9.1 percent.
This year, for the first time, some 30,000 city employes have the right to engage in collective bargaining with the city over their rate of compensation, and the unions that represent them are determined to exercise that right, to squeeze out more than the city wants to give.
The unions won a major tactical victory Friday night when the city's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) ruled that the District government must negotiate over salaries for this year and cannot unilaterally impose an increase less than that given to federal employes, as Mayor Marion Barry had proposed. The negotiations are likely to be tough because the city says it has no more money and the unions are in a truculent mood. They are full of angry people like Wright.
Wright is the shop steward for about 600 service workers at the giant hospital -- workers who wash the dishes and swab the halls and clean up after patients. He wears a green-and-gold baseball cap bearing the name of their union -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- and he seems to know them all.
"These are dead-end jobs," he said, "but the people who do them take pride in their work. They have to be respected."
The dissatisfaction that they expressed with little prompting from him is caused by more than just low wages. It results from the conviction that their work is taken for granted and that the Barry administration considers them expendable, when they feel they are not.
A wiry man of 56 who served in a black unit of World War II's segregated Army and joined the hospital staff on work release from D.C. Jail 21 years ago, Wright has been around long enough to develop a deep cynicism about the people he calls "plantation bosses" and "overseers" no matter what color they are.
As angry and cynical as he is, he is hardly alone in his disgruntled view of the government that employs him. Throughout the District, workers on the city payroll appear to be frustrated, restless, dissatisfied and spoiling for a fight with the Barry administration.
The pay-raise issue is the catalyst for their resentment, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. In every department, workers can be heard grumbling about working conditions, layoffs of their colleagues, and shortages of the equipment they need to do their jobs.
Strike talk is muted because strikes are illegal and expensive, but talk of other action is rampant. Some of the unions are more militant than others. At AFSCME, the biggest, the objective is to "cripple the city without losing a day's pay" if Barry sticks to his position, a union official said.
The workers say they do not believe that Barry is managing the city government efficiently or that economies have been effected that would enable them to keep the federal pay parity they have come to expect.
Workers, shop stewards and union officials interviewed last week uniformly expressed impatience with the arguments about balancing the budget and the federal payment.
To them, they said, the issues are money and dignity -- not just the dignity of their workers, but the dignity of the people they serve, like their patients at the hospital and the welfare recipients on the food stamp lines and the indigent elderly at D.C. Village and inmates at the jail. Layoffs and low morale on the staff, they said, hurt the community as much as they hurt the workers.
As Wright put it, "You can't run any plantation without cotton choppers."
"You know we're out of paper towels and toilet paper?" said Janet Busey indignantly. "And we're out of real towels. We're using bedsheets to dry these people off." Busey, who works at D.C Village, is president of AFSCME's local 2092.
"Nobody ever comes here from downtown to see what we do," she said. "I've never seen it as bad as this. We don't even have any Chux [the pads placed on the beds of incontinent patients], can you believe it? We're out of them and we can't get the requisition through. Damn right we're going to fight," she said. "We want 9.1 percent nothing less."
Busey called in a man who identified himself only as Parrish who was angrier than she. Barry's government, he said, "is loaded with middle management working in air-conditioned offices," ignoring people like him who "have to give total body care to people who can't do it for themselves. It's not pleasant to smell someone else's gas, but you have to do it. . . . These people are old; the exit from here is through the morgue."
Representatives of the firefighters, the police, corrections workers, housing inspectors, teachers and sewer workers voiced similar feelings. Incinerator workers are complaining that body parts from some hospital experiments have been added to the waste they are required to burn.
"It's not just money," said Geraldine Boykin, chairman of AFSCME's Council 20, which represents 16,000 city workers whose average annual wage she said is $12,000. "There are a lot of reasons why we are angry. The workers are angry, hurt and demoralized. They feel they have wasted their lives and nobody gives a damn."
Barry, she said, "doesn't have any idea what it's like to go down a 50-year-old manhole into the sewers. What does Elijah Rogers know about special clothing to protect workers from the chemicals?" Rogers, the city administrator, is noted for his dapper attire.
Richard Coward, a housing inspector who is head of Local 2725 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said his members were unhappy not just at the mayor's decision to hold them to 5 percent, but also because he did it unilaterally, without the negotiations to which the law entitles them.
Those negotiations are now apparently ensured, and the issue is what the workers will get from them. "You have to keep up with inflation and you have to get respect. We know you can't get blood from a turnip, and we're willing to save a few jobs," Coward said, "but let's negotiate." Coward said his members are "very restless, but restless is one thing and doing something about it is another."
That, precisely, is the question confronting the unions: what action to take if negotiations do not bring acceptable results?
Over the past 10 years, strikes by public workers have become common-place in American cities, but here there is no tradition of labor militancy among city workrs. There was a teachers' strike two years ago, but in general, the workers have adhered to the tradition of accepting whatever pay scale was included in the federal budget and confined their bargaining to working conditions.
As Boykin said, "This has never been a union town; people don't know what we're talking about when we say collective bargaining."
Boykin, declining to discuss the possibility of a strike, observed coyly that workers in her union "perform tasks that affect the quality of life in this city and they are very creative."
Coward, of AFGE, said, "There are lots of things you can do. Maybe it will take five minutes to pick up a phone or 10 minutes to go to the bathroom." w
But union officials at the national level are saying privately that there is not yet enough collective sentiment for coordinated, effective action against the city and that wildcat or random acts such as sick-ins or work slowdowns will not work.
Furthermore, the situation is more complicated than the workers like to admit. The city administration does not have unlimited resources and any wage package Barry does accept can be torpedoed by Congress. In addition, the personnel law requires that whatever wage contracts are agreed upon be for three years.
It will be difficult for the mayor, who has been struggling to halt the city's deficit spending and balance the budget, to commit the city three years in advance to the kind of wage settlement the unions will be seeking.
Barry has argued that instead of taking action against the city government, the unions should join him in trying to extract more aid from Congress in the form of a higher annual federal payment, so he could use the money to give the workers bigger raises.
He has said the workers "need and deserve" more than he has proposed to give them and that he is committed to the principle of collective bargaining. But he has not wavered from his insistence that he cannot promise to give what he does not have.