A new pay raise for D.C. prison guards, announced three days before a vote on which union will represent prison employes, represents an attempt by the city to "steal the election," according to an attorney for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is seeking to end 30 years of representation by the American Federation of Government Employes.
"The timing is obvious," said Hugh Beins, attorney for two Teamsters locals that are trying to enter the D.C. government market in separate bids to represent 2,300 prison employes and 2,500 blue-collar workers of the D.C. Board of Education. "It's a blatant attempt to buy their vote because the city doesn't want to deal with a militant union. It prefers to help AFGE because they've been together for so long."
Donald Weinberg, the city's chief labor negotiator, disagreed. He said the new pay plan, which was approved by Mayor Marion Barry Saturday, was prompted by a need to reduce the high turnover rate. Inmate crowding at the city's Lorton penal facilities and the D.C. Jail have made staff shortages dangerous, he said.
The new pay scale will raise salaries for entry-level officers by as much as 10 percent and is expected to cost the city $1.8 million next fiscal year.
"The city couldn't wait any longer," said Weinberg, who said the pay plan was suggested by the city's personnel director and a task force on prison pay established in February. "AFGE did push us early on to have the task force."
Because the battle for representation of the city's prison employes has gone on since January, "We would have been accused this past year of affecting the election whenever we put the plan in," said Weinberg. "We've been in a continuous election mode."
Prison employes will vote tomorrow in the year's third attempt to determine which union will represent them. On Feb. 19, the AFGE, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, received 48 percent of the vote; Teamsters Local 246, based in Fairfax, won 28 percent, and the Fraternal Order of Police won 24 percent. This forced a runoff, because city law requires the victor to win a majority vote.
In the following weeks, the Teamsters union won the endorsement of the FOP and brought in organizers and money to mount a serious campaign for its first contract with D.C. government employes. Stung by charges that it was not protecting its members from unsafe conditions in D.C. prisons, the AFGE filed a lawsuit against the city protesting inmate crowding and picketed the D.C. Jail.
A second election was held, and on May 21 the Teamsters union was declared the winner by a three-vote margin. The AFGE contested several dozen ballots, and the city's Public Relations Employees Board agreed that a new election should be held.
The stakes in tomorrow's election are high. AFGE, which represents 7,700 D.C. employes, stands to lose its largest unit in city government. The Teamsters, if successful in unseating the established union, will become a new and unfamiliar element in city labor relations.
Complaints about low pay and poor working conditions for guards prompted the union battle, as 1,000 members of the AFGE prison unit sought a new union last year. Shortly after this move, AFGE's national union placed the local union in receivership because of management problems.
J.D. Lewis, a representative of AFGE Local 1500, said approval of the new 10 percent raise for entry-level officers "has been in the works for three years. It has nothing to do with the Teamsters."
But Teamsters officials said the timing of the announcement was intended to give the guards' current union a boost just before the election.
"This is just another display of this city and how it works," said Phillip Feaster, president of Teamsters Local 639, based in Northeast Washington, which is seeking an injunction today against the D.C. Board of Education in a dispute over its role in the Teamsters' effort to represent school employes. "The city doesn't want to deal with the Teamsters."
Teamsters attorney Beins said the pay plan will not affect the outcome of the vote, however. "As of Friday, the organizers say we will win."