Mayor Marion Barry was about to become Ebenezer Scrooge in the eyes of several thousand District police officers when the City Council stepped in on Tuesday and approved a proposed pay increase that should allow the officers to receive some healthy checks before Christmas.
The dispute over the pay raise began seven months ago when a three-member arbitration panel ruled that police officers should receive a 15 percent pay increase over a three-year period. Although the matter is settled, the length and bitterness of the dispute may have an effect on the mayor's relationship with the labor community and the climate surrounding future collective bargaining sessions.
On the surface, it appears that Barry lost this one in a big way. Although only the council could reject the pay award, Barry, at first refused to send it to the council for consideration. Instead, he tried to get the decision overturned by the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) and when that failed he tried to get a D.C. Superior Court judge to side with him.
The matter might still be in court if the City Council had not taken the wind out of Barry's legal sails by adopting emergency legislation that gave the council authority to take up the issue even if Barry failed to transmit it. At that point Barry sent the package to the council and said something about it being too long since police had had a pay raise.
Alphonse G. Hill, deputy mayor for finance, summed up Barry's change of heart a bit differently after a council hearing on the pay raise.
"How can he Barry argue against it?" Hill said. "Isn't he jammed against the wall?"
It may be some time before the city knows if there is any merit to Barry's predictions that the police pay increase, $23 million more in pay and benefits than his administration had offered, would have "serious adverse fiscal consequences" for the city. More readily apparent is a change in the way some unions view Barry.
The arbitration panel's award was the first salary dispute decided by binding arbitration under D.C. labor law, and although the panel discarded the longstanding principle that Washington's police officers and firefighters should receive the same salaries, the firefighters backed the ruling.
Thomas N. Tippett, president of the Local 36 International Association of Firefighters, said Barry's decision to fight the ruling "has done a lot of damage" to his relationship with the unions.
"It is going to take a lot of healing for labor to get back into the mayor's corner," said Tippett. "There was a process there and the police union played by all the rules, won fair and square and then the mayor dragged it out in the courts unnecessarily."
Gary Hankins, chairman of the labor committee for the Fraternal Order of Police, said his union's relationship with Barry is "strained at best."
On the other hand, Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, said the mayor will be judged by his overall performance and that the labor community "is taking a wait-and-see attitude for the 1986 election."
Some of the labor leaders maintain that the real impact of the pay dispute will be seen at the negotiating table during the next collective bargaining session. Barry administration officials fear that unions will have their hearts set on winning big awards from an arbitration panel.
During collective bargaining, the city's 3,400 police officers, whose salaries range from starting pay of $19,000 to a top salary of $31,000, had been offered a three-year package worth $34 million. They won a three-year package worth $57 million from the arbitration panel.
Donald H. Weinberg, the city's chief negotiator, maintains that the police raise was too high and that the award was based on weak criteria, including a comparison of police salaries in four local jurisdictions instead of the nine that the city had used for comparison purposes.
"The mayor is a solid believer in a right to bargain collectively, as I am," said Weinberg. "He believes what you get you must earn at the bargaining table and that you have to make your case."
But Williams said Weinberg will get a tougher time in negotiations because the city pleaded poverty until most of the unions had settled and then began talk about unanticipated revenue.
"The unions are not going to be so quick to make compromises," said Williams. "They are going to come to the table with more skepticism and they may increase their outreach to the City Council. This whole experience proves that we can't put all our eggs in one basket on the executive side."
But FOP leader Hankins argued that the long distance from an arbitration panel's ruling to money in the bank should be enough to give any union pause.
Hankins said that in the three years of preparation and legal battles over the pay raise, the FOP spent $500,000 and watched the morale of police officers destroyed.
"This whole process demonstrates that arbitration is a viable but difficult alternative, and not one that I would choose again," said Hankins.