For more than a decade, D.C. business and labor interests have skirmished on the political stage in an effort to make the District's workers' compensation laws more to their liking.
That fray is intensifying this year as business and labor, two of the most influential forces in District politics, try to use the fall elections as leverage in the struggle.
The fight is focusing on a D.C. Council proposal to increase benefits paid to city government and private workers injured or killed on the job and enable them to sue insurance companies that withhold those benefits.
Labor representatives contend that the proposal is an overdue remedy to unscrupulous insurance firms that impose financial hardships on many injured District workers by forcing them to wait, sometimes for months, to receive medical and payment benefits.
Business leaders, who oppose the proposal, say it would drive employer benefit payments through the roof, forcing some firms to leave the District and discouraging others from locating here.
The business-labor battle has subsided somewhat since 1979, when the current workers' compensation laws were enacted. The debate, however, has resurfaced with a council committee's consideration of the proposed changes, which have languished in the committee for three years.
Today and Wednesday, council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Committee on Housing and Economic Development, will conduct public hearings about the problems and merits of the current laws.
It is unclear if the issue will be resolved this year. But what is clear is that business and labor groups, which traditionally throw vital financial support and endorsements behind favored candidates, are seeking to marshal support in the event of a vote.
For candidates in the congressional, mayoral and council elections, the choices are clear, but not easy: Business has the money, labor has the votes.
"Politicians end up trying to do a dance around it," said Terry Lynch, president of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and an at-large council candidate. "Campaign dollars really do affect a lot how council members vote."
The AFL-CIO, which boasts 75,000 members city-wide, has made workers' compensation a central campaign issue. The first query on an AFL-CIO questionnaire circulated recently asked candidates to state their positions on the benefits plan, and union leaders raised the matter in their May 12 interviews with several council candidates, said Ron Richardson, executive secretary of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union.
"This is the litmus test that we've got for people who are supposed to be our friends," he said. "You can't sit on the fence on this one."
Likewise, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the main business group in the District, is expected to use its clout in the matter. The board's members include dozens of developers, bankers and other executives who traditionally help bankroll D.C. political campaigns.
The board's federal political action committee in April endorsed the congressional campaign of D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and gave her a $5,000 contribution. One board member said the group will interview other candidates in July before deciding on endorsements.
As of Friday, 82 people -- many of them business and labor representatives -- had signed up to speak at the hearing, and more are expected.
Politicians, who seldom take part in such hearings, are looking to exploit the issue as well. Several candidates for local offices have signed up to address the hearing in an apparent bid to court influential business and labor support. "It appears that the candidates are using this as an opportunity to go on record with labor and business on this issue," said Dawn Alexander, an aide to Jarvis.
Among those scheduled to testify is Eleanor Holmes Norton, a former Carter administration official who is running for the seat being vacated by Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.). Joseph P. Yeldell, a former Barry administration official who is running for the delegate's seat, also has signed up to address the hearing.
In addition, at-large council candidate Johnny Barnes and school board member Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4), who is also running in the at-large race, have signed up to speak.
Moreover, four of the five committee members, including Kane, are running for elective office. Jarvis is a mayoral candidate, John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) is a candidate for council chairman, and Frank Smith Jr. is seeking reelection to his Ward 1 seat.
Some candidates are hoping today's 9 a.m. hearing will help them compete for media attention with Mayor Marion Barry, whose trial on drug and perjury charges is scheduled to start the same day. "The hearing is the only thing that can compete with the trial," said Barnes.