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Mayor Anthony A. Williams seems bent on self-destruction. From disastrous personnel selections to fundraising scandals to poor performance at many agencies, the examples abound. Now comes the latest episode: the weak response of the Williams administration to the growing controversy involving George Washington University (GW), the Miller & Long construction company, and the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN).

The trio locked in battle in early May, when WIN, a 5-year-old church- and community-based organization representing 25,000 families, accused GW of violating the city’s “first-source” employment law. That law requires any company receiving District-subsidized financing at or above $500,000 for a project—usually through industrial-revenue bonds—to agree that 51 percent of resulting new hires will be city residents, and that it will operate a registered apprenticeship program approved by the Department of Employment Services (DOES).

WIN singled out Bethesda-based Miller & Long, which is working as a subcontractor at a GW project at 19th and E Streets NW, alleging that the company was violating the first-source law. The DOES apparently agreed; in June, it sent a letter to GW, citing the university for noncompliance with the law, referring to Miller & Long.

“Miller & Long got caught red-handed violating a District law,” says the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, WIN co-chair and pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. He adds that the company “manipulates the Hispanic community and degrades and demeans District residents by using coded comments such as ‘We want our workers to be drug-free.’” (That’s a reference to a comment reportedly made by Myles Gladstone, Miller & Long’s director of human resources—”We want qualified people who are drug-free”—which appeared in the GW student newspaper, the Hatchet.)

This is not merely some obscure labor skirmish. In fact, it raises important questions and challenges for the Williams administration: How much of the District’s current economic boom will trickle down to workers and ordinary residents? What role should the government play in the economic empowerment of its citizens? Will a union model for apprenticeships continue to serve as the standard in a city where, according to government officials, more than 60 percent of businesses are nonunion? And how can the mayor maintain his professed man-of-the-people image, which he correctly believes is crucial to wining re-election?

If the delicate union labor issues underlying the GW fight are improperly handled, Williams’ 2002 mayoral opponents will gain a potent weapon. So it’s essential for the mayor to swiftly negotiate an end to the brouhaha, without turning friends into enemies.

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Which is precisely what Williams is not doing. Except for the letter citing GW with noncompliance, the mayor’s minions have done very little to resolve the conflict; they certainly haven’t brought WIN, GW, and Miller & Long together.

Williams-administration officials say their hands are tied because the current law does not provide for any sanctions against violators. So WIN has vowed to push for passage of a tougher bill. At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania, whose committee oversees the DOES, has scheduled hearings for early September to explore the entire apprenticeship program and has promised to examine ways to strengthen the first-source law.

Charles Barber, senior counsel at GW, welcomes the upcoming debate on the law, which he says is outdated. In defense of the university, he says that when GW signed the bond-financing agreement, its obligation was to put forth a “good-faith effort” to reach the required hiring levels and set up the apprenticeship program. The university has made that good-faith effort, Barber says, noting that the city has not reported any problems with the apprenticeship proposals submitted by the 22 other contractors hired by the university with the industrial-revenue-bond financing. “To isolate one contract [out of 23] and then conclude GW is in noncompliance is unfair,” Barber adds.

Holland & Knight attorneys Douglas Patton and Roderic Woodson, who have been representing Miller & Long, think the entire situation is ridiculous. They say the fight is jeopardizing the employment of District residents who work for the company, and they call WIN’s accusations “outrageous.”

“WIN has created a construct of lies and misinformation that makes Miller & Long appear as a corporate bad guy,” says Woodson.

According to documents requested by LL and provided by Woodson and Patton, Miller & Long employs 2,600 people, of whom 82 percent are minorities and 428 are District residents. At the GW site, the firm employs 118 people, 41 of them District residents—or 35 percent. The lawyers say there are 12 apprentices at the GW site, five of whom are District residents—or 42 percent. Those figures fall short of the required 51 percent. But, like Barber, Miller & Long’s lawyers argue that the 51 percent figure is “not a mandate; it’s a goal, an objective.”

To some extent, the fight comes down to which apprenticeship model the District will follow. DOES and WIN have pushed the current practice, which relies heavily on standards set by unions during the ’50s and ’60s. But Miller & Long officials say union criteria should not be imposed on nonunion shops.

Edmonds insists that “the law is the law.” And he dismisses the diversity of Miller & Long’s ranks: “Eighty percent minorities does not mean 80 percent D.C. residents.” He argues that Miller & Long wants to set up a “chop-shop” apprenticeship program, where workers are hired for a particular project and then “tossed in the trash can” and denied any permanency with the company. “They are not interested in the advancement of workers,” Edmonds adds.

Of course, Miller & Long officials and their attorneys deny such allegations. They say they provide solid in-house training for their workers, competitive benefits, and opportunities for promotion based on merit. They say they are willing to put their program up against any DOES-approved apprenticeship.

As each side slings nasty allegations, the whole affair has the makings of another D.C. General debacle. In that battle, the mayor allowed himself to be cast as a mean-spirited technocrat, concerned about the bottom line rather than workers or the poor. His good intentions to provide quality health care to uninsured residents suffocated under the weight of incomplete planning, poor public and community relations work, union organizing, and political grandstanding by more than a few D.C. councilmembers and so-called civic leaders.

Some of the same players who cast Williams as the D.C. General demon are now lining up with WIN. Catania, Ward 7 Councilmember and Mayor-in-Wanting Kevin Chavous, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty, and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson signed a July 23 letter calling on Williams to issue a stop-work order on all GW projects financed by industrial-revenue bonds and all projects on which Miller & Long is a subcontractor until the company agrees to use the city’s certified laborers’ apprenticeship program.

“We’re petitioning you to exhibit the same leadership on this issue as you took in stopping the new communications tower in Ward 3 this spring,” the councilmembers wrote. Translation: If the mayor can help rich whites, he ought to be able to come to the aid of working-class African-Americans and Latinos.

Although Barber, Patton, and Woodson don’t raise the specter of race and class, as the lawmakers do, they also believe it’s time for the mayor to become directly involved in the dispute and bring all the parties to the table.

Williams is in a tight spot. If he sides with WIN, he will be seen as playing to a special constituency that provided support during the last election and holds an impressive hand in the next one. But if the mayor favors GW in this apprenticeship battle, he will be seen as placating big business while attempting to soothe political allies like Woodson, whom he appointed to the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and Patton, who served as his first deputy mayor for economic development and continues to be a major fundraiser.

Further, the mayor could be regarded as trying to curry favor with GW at a time when the university has taken the city to court over the District’s attempt to clamp down on the school’s insatiable growth, which has gobbled up entire neighborhoods and, most recently, two hotels.

Still, Williams can’t afford to do nothing. Chavous and his posse aren’t waiting, and WIN is getting impatient. The organization is promising to organize a massive voter-registration campaign—and, given the group’s history, that’s no empty threat. If the mayor flubs this, he can bet those new WIN voters won’t be his to claim.

WHAT, NO ROOM SERVICE?

The mayor may have a hard time responding to workers’ issues, but he is moving full-steam-ahead to stabilize neighborhoods. Well, at least one neighborhood—his own: Foggy Bottom. Last week, the city sponsored a major conference at GW—that’s right, the same school that’s been cited for not complying with District law.

This week, the city has been holding five days of “employee input sessions” at the very posh Watergate Hotel. The sessions are in preparation for the mayor’s Citizen Summit Oct. 5 and 6. Nice idea, except that the employees were given little time—about one hour during one three-hour session—to comment on a 14-page draft strategic plan that will serve as the foundation for the major document to be presented in October. Although they had not seen the document before the start of the meeting, they were asked to evaluate how citizens might respond or how their agencies might be able to implement the plan. But the big problem for LL is the location of the sessions. Beverly Wheeler, head of the city’s Neighborhood Action office, says the city made the decision to spend $26,000 to rent the room at the Watergate because it couldn’t “find a place big enough for 150 people that was available.” That’s on top of $19,400 for computers and tech support and $10,600 for professional facilitators to run the sessions. (Hey, LL’s only telling you what she was told.) —Jonetta Rose Barras

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