On June 7, Lorton inmate Alejandro McAllister died two hours after prison officers found him nearly unconscious on his cell floor. He had apparently washed down a fistful of antidepressants with shampoo. During those two hours, Lorton officers and medical personnel, including a doctor, crammed ice in his pants, accused him of faking his symptoms, quarreled over whether and how to take him to a hospital, napped, and eventually left him lying face-down on the ground in leg irons and handcuffs, according to the Washington Post.

An October court report reviewing the case concluded that the attending physician, Carlton Phelps, “let [McAllister] die.”

You might think the Department of Corrections would have fired Phelps instantly. Nope. The only employee discharged after McAllister’s death was a nurse who worked for a private firm under contract with Lorton. The city employees, all protected by their unions and the city’s personnel laws, received light punishments. The doctor was suspended for a mere 30 days.

What’s more, the Doctors Council of the District of Columbia, Phelps’s union, thinks that penalty was too harsh. “We filed a grievance,” says Adrian G. Wilson, head of the Doctors Council. “We felt that it was inappropriate….The correctional health system is substandard, and the X’s and Y’s weren’t in place. The system failed, and not Dr. Phelps.”

This is the same Dr. Phelps accused of “barbaric and callous disregard for human life” by the court report.

Of course, the Doctors Council isn’t alone in representing negligent, even criminally incompetent employees. Under the terms of city personnel laws, all unions must support their members in legal battles. But Wilson’s amoral justification of Phelps’ behavior springs from a infuriating worldview commonly held by D.C. government union leaders. For them, city workers toil dutifully without adequate funding. Workers rarely blunder, so the city should almost never fire them. When the government needs to downsize, it shouldn’t ax the worst employees but the youngest, since no employees are really that bad.

Over the last two decades, the dozen-odd big unions representing District government employees have helped create a nexus of high wages and enviable benefits, making Washington the Daddy Warbucks of municipal governments. Taking advantage of labor-friendly personnel laws, the unions have helped insulate their workers from performance evaluation and reprimands. Union leaders have also encouraged full-throttle growth in the government’s size—growth that swelled union bank accounts with increasing membership dues. Good enough for government work? Actually, government work couldn’t have been much better.

But in the last year, the political power the unions had amassed has begun to evaporate. Because the control board and Congress will now largely determine the District’s future, “there’s hardly a role for the [D.C.] Council, let alone the unions,” says a council staffer who has worked on labor issues. A chastened council and Mayor Marion Barry forced the unions to accept pay cuts last spring, the only public employee wage cutbacks in any major American city in recent history. Generous contracts remain largely intact, but the city’s unions now have less influence over the jobs they safeguard than ever before.

Union officials have only themselves to blame. Washington’s municipal employee unions have given organized labor a terrible name. The national labor movement may have rejuvenated itself recently by electing a reform coalition to head the AFL-CIO, but the District’s unions remain wedded to archaic labor dogma. Their intransigence has begun to freeze them out of the Republican-dominated debate over the city’s future. While governments everywhere shrink, D.C.’s government union leaders act as though time is standing still.

Time isn’t on Gizaw Gessesse’s mind this recent sunny morning. He glides across money-green carpet to a cluttered desk in his spacious office. A round-faced man who smiles easily, the Ethiopian-born Gessesse wears a striped silk tie and reading glasses. He serves as executive director of the District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the city’s largest public union. At 45, Gessesse has been a union organizer for 15 years and District Council 20 executive director for the last five. Although he has never worked for the city himself, he represents nearly 8,000 city workers, from secretaries to public-works employees.

Gessesse is recalling the cost-cutting recommendations he offered repeatedly to former-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Union ideas, he says, would have allowed the cash-strapped city to save money without touching benefits, pay, or jobs. “We told her that this is the union proposal:…If you go [through the budget] per department, you could save so many things,” he says.

What savings exactly? He pauses. “Various expenditures.”

Uh-huh. Like chopping employees? Well, no. “It’s not [that we would have] cut some of the employees. You’re looking into [saving] by not filling the unfilled positions.”

What else? The city should have limited “unnecessary computer purchasing and computer equipment,” along with a few other management perks like cell phones and faxes, Gessesse says. But failing to upgrade the often clunky, Stone Age District computer system is possibly the worst way for the city to save cash. And scrapping cell phones as the solution to a $100-million deficit? Gessesse, it becomes clear, is living in a union dream world.

Why not? For much of the last 15 years, the dream world has been a reality: Coddled by Barry and the liberal Democrats on the D.C. Council, the city’s public employee unions flourished in the 1980s.

Gessesse earns a healthy $52,000 a year, but if he worked for the District, he would probably make more. Not necessarily in pay, but in benefits: A city worker with 15 years’ experience enjoys 10 holidays and 26 paid vacation days annually. The city would pay for his optical and dental care. Depending on which District agency employed him, his pension could be among the most generous in the country, with cost-of-living adjustments not just each year but twice a year. (The District pays more than $300 million annually in pension benefits and has a $5-billion to $6-billion unfunded pension obligation.) He would never find such a sweet deal in the private sector.

Gessesse would also work under rules that strictly limit his manager’s ability to transfer him to other work sites or assign him different tasks on days when he isn’t busy. What such regulations cost in terms of efficiency isn’t precisely known, but personnel experts estimate the financial burden in the millions of dollars every year. Finally, Gessesse’s long tenure would grant him nearly unconditional job security, given the seniority rules (“last hired, first fired”) in union-negotiated contracts.

While such lavish benefits eat a large chunk of the city budget, basic wages for city workers are nothing to scoff at, either. By 1993, the District paid its employees an average of approximately $38,500 per year, according to the Department of Commerce. Astonishingly, private-sector workers in D.C.—one of the richest job markets in the country—earned an average of only $35,600 in 1993. Nationally, all government workers made just $28,500 on average in 1993—fully $10,000 less than District employees.

Like other cities and the states, Washington routinely, almost automatically, granted pay hikes to its workers throughout the ’70s and ’80s. From 1972 to 1992, the average yearly increase in state and local government payrolls was 7.9 percent. Adjusting for inflation, that means a government employee making $47,500 in 1972 made $64,500 in 1992—a 35-percent hike. During the same period, inflation-adjusted wages crept up by less than 1 percent for most Americans. Gessesse puts it more plainly: “We always received a pay raise.”

A massive downtown development boom flooded the District government with cash during the ’80s. The unions worked in tandem with city officials, particularly Barry, to spend it all, and then some. Together they created the jumbo city work force that became the District’s albatross.

A student of the Irish and Italian political machines, Barry believed government work could bring hundreds or even thousands of city residents from the welfare rolls to the middle class and build a firm base of pro-Barry voters. Union members were loyal, hard-working campaigners, willing to answer phones and trudge door-to-door. Barry and the unions assembled the largest per capita city work force in the nation.

No one seems to know exactly how many people work for the District. Recent Post articles reveal the confusion: Some days the paper says there are 35,000 workers; other days, it’s 41,000 (which is probably the more accurate figure).

The debate spills over into comparisons of the size of the District work force to that of other cities. Department of Commerce figures show that Washington has far more workers per capita than any of the states or cities—more than 900 workers per 10,000 residents in 1992, the last year for which figures are available. The next-highest figures are just under 800, in sparsely populated Alaska and Wyoming. But city and union officials insist that these statistics are distorted because they hide the special jurisdictional functions performed by the District—a city, county, and state rolled into one.

Some analysts, however, have adjusted for this discrepancy and still conclude that Washington has too many workers. The Rivlin commission, a blue-ribbon board of consultants, officials, and activists convened by Barry in the late 1980s, found that the District had nearly 40 percent more full-time employees than the average for similar cities when state and county functions were included. Even after recent staffing reductions, says Larry Herman, a partner with the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick who worked on the Rivlin report, “the metrics would probably suggest that the District is overstaffed.”

When the Barry administration recently tried to prove that the District work force is about the right size, it had to reach back 14 years—before most of Barry’s tenure as mayor—to find data supporting its position.

In short, the unions had come a long way in a relatively short time. Government employees in Washington and elsewhere didn’t even begin to organize until the early 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order allowing federal workers to unionize. State and local government laborers soon followed suit. According to Ray Horton, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, in the mid-’60s, New York City became the first major local government to recognize its employees’ right to bargain collectively.

Horton says city workers moved to unionize for the same reasons private employees always had: “In the early days, it was very traditional management versus labor issues.”

The unions were slow to integrate but eventually helped prevent discrimination against minorities. Historians note that as early as 1935, a nascent AFSCME appointed blacks as organizers and leaders and ensured that African-Americans’ grievances were heard. Later, civil rights organizers forged ties with the labor movement. They especially targeted government workers in order to set an example of positive race and labor relations for the private sector.

In Washington, most white government union leaders did little to help blacks in the early years, but by the late 1970s—when blacks entered District government at a quick pace—things had changed. Local union officials say unions were crucial to helping some blacks lift themselves from poverty into decent jobs. In part because of union protections, those jobs were less subject to the evils of management bias. By 1984, writes political scientist Richard C. Kearney, “low-paid minority employees [had] the most to gain from [government] unions.” Today, as many as 90 percent of nonmanagement employees in District agencies belong to a union.

By 1989, the boom had come to anabrupt end. The D.C. real estate market collapsed. Tax revenue, which had skyrocketed almost 10 percent a year for a decade, flatlined. But when city budgets crumpled, the unions didn’t. They fought any cuts in public employment or wages until the last minute, and they refused to cooperate with reform ideas that might have saved money. Services suffered instead.

Take D.C. General Hospital. The 189-year-old behemoth began its fiscal slide in the late 1980s, piling up $84 million in debt by this fall. Part of that debt has resulted from D.C. General’s high cost of labor, which is inflated by silly work rules. The hospital, for example, allows its doctors to run private practices on the side. Hotly defended by the Doctors Council, that rule gives an incentive to doctors to minimize their time at the hospital and see more private patients. That’s one reason the hospital employed, until recently, 3.8 doctors for every 10,000 visits, 40 percent more than the national average.

Another work rule applies “bumping” rights to the hospital. In theory, when the hospital sought to fire doctors to save money, such rights would allow one specialist with seniority to “bump” another kind of specialist, with less seniority, out of his job. In one case, a cardiologist whose position was eliminated threatened to bump an internist. The fact that the cardiologist hadn’t practiced internal medicine for 15 years didn’t seem to bother the unions. But hospital officials say the idea caused such an uproar at the hospital that bumping rights have never been applied to doctors—even though they are still contractually allowable.

The hospital continued to deliver shabby care even as its payroll got longer. Its overall ratio of employees to local residents topped that of every state public hospital system but one in 1992. Even so, the unions representing most of the 2,300 hospital workers fiercely opposed the best idea to save it—Kelly’s proposal to turn it into a public benefits corporation (PBC) independent of city regulations. Instead, the Doctors Council, for one, issued a half-baked, seven-page proposal in June 1993 that called not for fundamental change at the hospital but another layer of bureaucracy—this time, a Districtwide Department of Health—to oversee it.

Of course, the hospital unions—which include two AFSCME locals, an American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local, the D.C. Nurses Association, and the Doctors Council—know that independence from the city means they would fall outside the protective arms of the pro-labor government, with whom they now negotiate contracts. Wary that a quasi-private corporation would chop their pensions, insurance coverage, and other benefits, the unions helped keep PBC legislation off the D.C. Council’s agenda.

Until now. Years of foot-dragging have led to an imminent crisis at D.C. General; recently, city officials even toyed with the idea of closing the hospital. “Now [the unions] have come on board with the PBC,” says Christopher Murphy, clerk of the council’s Committee on Human Services. “Because of all the talk of closing the hospital, they realize this is the only possible out.”

But union officials are still hoping to emasculate the PBC: They are pushing council legislation to ensure that their benefits are protected. “We’re interested in making sure that the pensions people have are protected, that their health insurance, their life insurance is protected,” says Nurses Association Executive Director Evelyn Sommers, who represents about 350 registered nurses at the hospital. “And we want to make sure that their seniority rights would be recognized,” she adds. In other words, Sommers wants to make sure the entire union truckload of provisions is included in new PBC contracts—a ludicrous position if the PBC is to represent real change.

District public libraries furnish another example of union recalcitrance. In the early ’70s, most D.C. branch libraries were open 72 hours a week. During the ’80s, the hours fell into the 40s. Today, most branch libraries are open 38 hours a week and closed all day on Sundays and Fridays.

And yet no library employees lost their jobs until the last two years, when 54 of 469 positions were cut through attrition, according to library officials. As late as 1992, the District employed more than twice the national average of state and local governments to staff its libraries. And library workers, two-thirds of whom are unionized, suffered a drop in wages only this year—a 6-percent rollback along with six forced furlough days. Library spokeswoman Debra Truhart says she can’t recall a single previous drop in pay for library workers.

But the sweetest deal for D.C. workers is the lack of accountability built into their jobs, thanks to the personnel laws designed in the unions’ favor. As Dr. Phelps’ case shows, city workers can appeal even the mildest disciplinary action taken against them for even the most grievous misdeeds.

And they do. Whether angry about a failed promotion bid, accused of fraud, or charged with lying to superiors, aggrieved employees and their unions file hundreds of cases annually. The cumbersome process has allowed city workers accused and even convicted of crimes to stay, at least temporarily, on the payroll. Council staffers recall case after case, most recently one involving two housing employees convicted of accepting bribes who received city paychecks for several months after their trials.

In this atmosphere, performance evaluations have become a joke. Of 301 D.C. Public School (DCPS) principals and assistant principals evaluated in 1994, none were given “unsatisfactory” ratings. None were even given “conditional” ratings, one step above “unsatisfactory.” And only two were rated “satisfactory”; the rest were judged to be “outstanding” or “very good.” Never mind that D.C. schools have some of the highest dropout rates and worst test scores in the nation.

As for the police, department commanders who are granting promotions cannot view the disciplinary records of those officers under consideration. Instead, promotions depend solely on department exams. You would think that a cop who was accused of shooting at his girlfriend and who later allegedly used his vehicle to slam the car of another woman wouldn’t get promoted. But one-time officer Charles Bacon is now Deputy Chief Charles Bacon.

Union officials say the unions aren’t responsible for most of these abuses—that the city’s Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act (CMPA), the ponderous law regulating city employment, is to blame. What they don’t mention is that they not only fought for passage of the CMPA in the late ’70s, but also have consistently opposed any change to it.

“They had a very big input in the writing of it,” says Nelson Rimensnyder, former historian for the now-defunct House D.C. Committee. “The unions saw it as a very big opportunity, and the councilmembers were basically pro-union.”

Today, union leaders jealously defend CMPA provisions. “Obviously, the [CMPA] has served the city well over the years,” says David J. Schlein, an AFGE national vice president. “It’s really just a due-process procedure,” he says. Tell that to the family of Lorton prisoner McAllister.

For his part, Gessesse flatly opposes any CMPA changes, as does Washington Teachers Union (WTU) President Barbara Bullock: “You know I’m against that,” she says with a knowing smile. “That’s about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Bullock speaks that way about many reform ideas. A master of the pithy superlative, she is a treat for reporters. The 22-year union veteran is tall and has irrepressibly large, frizzy hair, with a magnanimous personality to match. It’s easy to see why the union flock chose her in August 1994 to lead the 5,000-member WTU. Even advocates of change like Jim Ford, staff director for the D.C. Council committee that oversees schools, say Bullock is a dedicated teacher, and not a bureaucrat, at heart.

Unfortunately, her warm personality doesn’t change her union. If most of the public employee unions are dinosaurs, the WTU is the T. Rex. “The place the unions have done the most damage is the schools,” says a longtime council staffer. Huddled in their plush 15th Street NW offices, WTU officials have been a model of obstinacy.

The problem isn’t that WTU has soaked D.C. with exorbitant salaries. The teachers and principals who staff the schools aren’t especially well paid. The average starting salary for DCPS teachers last year was $25,937; the average for Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington, Fairfax, and Alexandria teachers was $27,885. Those jurisdictions pay their best-compensated teachers $7,500 more than the best-paid District teachers. Similar differences exist for principals.

Instead, the real cost to DCPS has come in the stubborn refusal of WTU to help reformers change some of the worst schools in the country. The school board and, to a greater extent, Superintendent Franklin Smith are brimming with ideas to improve test scores and graduation rates: “charter” schools that could operate independently of the city bureaucracy, more on-site management for other schools, privatization of some school functions (even entire schools), and stricter measures of teacher performance.

But for years, WTU stood firm against many of these reforms. Some of the union’s complaints have a patina of legitimacy: Bullock says she supports charter schools and schools managed on-site as long as they don’t grant too much power to principals. Fair enough. But given the union’s track record of almost invariably holding reforms hostage to teachers’ job security and perks, it’s a little difficult to take her concerns at face value. Consider the following examples:

WTU successfully exploited the race issue to block any private management of schools. When Smith proposed, both in 1994 and 1995, that a Minnesota-based company, Educational Alternatives Inc. (EAI), manage a dozen or so D.C. schools, the union went ballistic. Bullock warned that the white-run company would experiment on black children and trample teachers’ rights. In truth, EAI has African-Americans among its top executives. And the basic benefits of privatization—lower costs, more independence from bureaucrats—got lost in the rhetoric. “The union plays on mixed messages,” says at-large school board member Jay Silberman, an advocate of private management. “People were convinced based on the union’s rhetoric that…there were racial aspects to [privatization] when in fact there were not.”

WTU has fought to keep the teacher-appraisal process as it is—totally ineffective. Of 5,156 teachers evaluated in 1994, exactly four were given “unsatisfactory” ratings. Nearly half the teachers were thought to be “outstanding.” Such outrageous ratings are possible because the appraisal process has long been subject to bargaining negotiations between teachers and the city, permitting the union to have a say in how instructors are evaluated. It’s like the fox helping design the security system for the henhouse. Until school principals feel free to evaluate teachers without the union negotiators and the employee appeals board looking over their shoulders, no real appraisal is possible.

School board staffers say that WTU opposed on-site management altogether at first, preferring to keep decision-making within DCPS’s huge and cumbersome bureaucracy. “[On-site management is] actually stacked in favor of teachers,” says a staff member who asked not to be identified. “But, “We’ll still have to stay after school,’ [teachers] said. And it’s true. Everyone knows it takes time to manage a school from within—that’s why it’s a good idea. But we had to explain to them that they would have more power.” Now Bullock says she likes the idea of on-site management, but school observers say teacher resistance has helped prevent full implementation. “Local school autonomy is really not occurring,” says a council staffer.

In June 1985, the union began a four-year legal battle to ensure that teachers didn’t have to work a single day in the month of August or on Good Friday. Mind you, the issue wasn’t the number of days teachers had to work, but which ones. Three separate judicial bodies heard the case, resulting in vast legal fees for the city; finally the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against the union in 1989. When asked about it today, Bullock still defends the case, arguing that teachers shouldn’t have to work in August since they aren’t paid until Oct. 1, which she believes is too long to wait for a first check. School still starts in September.

The union’s worst offense is that it consistently excuses teachers’ failure to go the extra mile—or even the extra half-hour—for students. School board staffers say WTU is famous for defending the sanctity of teachers’ lunch hour and 3 o’clock freedom. “We can’t get them to do anything once that final bell rings,” says one staff member.

That’s right, says Bullock defiantly: “Look, we’re all in this together. I have supported the children, but if [teachers] are going to suffer, everyone else is also going to suffer.” Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a union to forsake such “members-first” language. But until WTU changes its basic approach to reform, D.C. schools will offer terrific job security for teachers, but a second-rate learning environment for students.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, both Washington and Philadelphia elected change-minded mayors in the early 1990s. Sharon Pratt Kelly failed. Philadelphia’s mayor—the recently re-elected Edward G. Rendell—succeeded.

Of course, as union leaders point out, the District is not Philadelphia. But how Kelly and Rendell differed in handling municipal employee unions says a lot about their divergent political fortunes. Rendell threatened the unions with wage cuts and used the resulting leverage to win concessions on work rules and benefits. He never clipped pay because he never had to: He saved enough with the concessions and with other belt-tightening to spend nearly $150 million revitalizing run-down neighborhoods.

Where Rendell barked, Kelly rolled over. Kelly, who promised to use “a shovel, not a broom” to clean out the city government, reneged on her promise to chop the payroll. Philadelphia’s workers saw no pay increases for 1993. Despite a huge and growing deficit, many D.C. employees received three separate wage hikes that year, totaling a whopping 12 percent. Kelly did authorize a relatively small reduction in force, but that was a nominal price for unions to pay in exchange for the extra income.

“She owed absolutely nothing to the unions—they hadn’t endorsed her, and they actively opposed her,” says a council staffer with labor experience. “But she immediately kowtowed to them. It was one of the clearest examples of her weakness of will.”

The political winds changed dramatically for the District in January. Though Marion Barry, labor’s best friend, was returned to the mayor’s office, the Republicans took control of Congress and, by extension, many D.C. government decisions. Last winter and spring, Barry and the council scrambled to avoid a federal takeover with a belated attack on bloated public employment. In a way, Washington’s Rendell had arrived, only his name was Newt Gingrich. And he was a much tougher customer.

As frustrating and anti-democratic as federal control over the District may be, it has created a political climate in which the city’s unions are, at last, losing their patrons.

Last spring’s wage deal for city workers most dramatically expressed the power shift. The city won a 6-percent pay reduction in 1995 and a further 3 percent in ’96, along with six furlough days this year and some overtime rollbacks. (The precise terms were slightly different for each union.) It also continued its early retirement program.

The decline in pay represented the first real strike at public employee unions, in Washington and nationally. Other cities have been able to extract little from their unions. No other major city has cut pay. In New York, for example, Republican Rudolph Giuliani was expected to disembowel the unions once he became mayor. Instead, he befriended many union leaders and has failed to attack worker benefits that rival those of the District.

Prodded by the House Appropriations Committee and the control board, Barry and the council sound little like the tax-and-spenders of past decades. Fifteen years ago, says former Barry official Richard Lefante, the mayor saw public employment as an anti-poverty device. Today, “I think he has changed. His philosophy is that that’s no longer possible with resources the way they are,” Lefante says.

And councilmembers have begun to question some basic labor-city arrangements. To meet control board demands, the council voted last summer to contract out more city work and fire more employees, though fewer than the board wanted.

More important, the council is tackling the union’s holy book: the merit personnel act. In the past, the council has rarely amended the CMPA significantly, other than to loosen employees’ residency requirements in the ’80s. But this year the council passed legislation that changes the CMPA to remove the teacher-appraisal process from collective bargaining. In other words, after Congress approves the D.C. appropriations bill this year, WTU will have no say over how teachers are evaluated.

Council staffers say this aggressiveness reflects a new attitude. “The big difference here was that for years, people have talked about doing things differently in government, but nothing’s really changed,” says Ford, the education committee staff director. “This caught people by surprise because something really happened.”

To be sure, the unions still have their local defenders. At-Large Independent Councilmember William Lightfoot, for example, thinks city employees work hard and deserve every penny of their earnings. He believes unions will have “a major role” in further budget negotiations, and he says they retain some political power. “The unions are able to mobilize workers for phone banks on election day, to circulate petitions and literature,” he says.

Two weeks ago, Lightfoot, along with Councilmembers Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) and Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), sponsored legislation requiring city contractors to pay their workers the same wage that unionized municipal employees would get if they were doing the work. A major victory for the unions, the bill’s passage proved that the council isn’t ready to completely cut its bond with organized labor.

But overall, the council’s history of staunch labor support has begun to crumble, and the council itself has lost power. The control board has played rough with the council and the mayor, consistently criticizing them for not trimming enough from the budget. Its criticisms have teeth: The board has the authority to review every labor contract with the city, and it has a specific mandate from Congress to pinpoint and, presumably, eliminate “overly generous” work rules. (Finally, at press time the control board was considering whether to overturn the new law requiring contractors to match union-negotiated wages. It would be the first time the board has nixed a law passed by the council and signed by the mayor.)

Likewise, House Republicans, drunk on Gingrichian revolutionary zeal, hope to clip still more from the city budget—$256 million more, to be precise. In committee hearings and private meetings, they have instructed the control board to ignore the unions if they do not offer early concessions. Not a shovel, Mayor Kelly, but a bulldozer.

When the gravy train of city employment finally crashed into the brick wall of shrinking budgets, the unions had an opportunity to experiment with urban renewal—perhaps by following Philadelphia’s lead. Instead, the dinosaurs are still plodding along in their old ways. In contrast to some private-sector unions, the public employee unions sit down at the bargaining table with no new ideas, only labor platitudes. In the process, they render themselves less and less relevant to the debate.

When D.C. budget cuts became inevitable, for example, union officials worked to focus those cuts on the overall employment level, or even wages, but not their benefits. Labor experts say such strategies are common. What the unions allow government officials to do “is cut the work force, but not change the work rules, which may cost more in efficiencies than actual pay costs,” says Ester Fuchs, director of the Barnard-Columbia Center for Urban Policy in New York.

In an atmosphere in which the House speaker makes floor appearances to single out Washington’s unions for their inflexibility, union leaders should find a way to work with Republicans. Instead, they crouch around old ideas like rats around a carcass. Gessesse, for example, defends seniority rules by invoking racism: “Well, let me put it this way. You protect provisions of those hired for a long time regardless of their performance. If that is not the case, then you go back to discrimination.” In a city government dominated by African-Americans? Unlikely.

Bullock also plays the race card, with more legitimacy but even less political good sense: “The Congress has really decided they’re going to be the slave masters, and this is their plantation.”

Virtually all the union leaders justify the CMPA on the grounds that it is a basic “due-process” law. Many unions are in the midst of pricey court battles seeking to restore their pay cuts. And labor leaders all say the real problem isn’t “front-line workers” (presumably, all of their employees) but “midlevel managers.” Gessesse bizarrely blames the city’s woes on such managers who always “go to Hawaii” on the city’s tab.

To be fair, the union leaders do make some good arguments. In particular, Schlein of AFGE emphasizes that little scrutiny has been given to the millions spent in contracting out city work. And he has a point that the federal payment probably doesn’t fully fund all the services the city provides to the federal government and the diplomatic corps, which don’t pay city taxes.

But to cling to these pass-the-buck arguments is to misunderstand the political sea change the District underwent when activist Republicans won Congress. National unions have taken the recent conservative ascendance more seriously. After the 1994 elections, dissidents within the labor movement loudly complained that the big unions had forgotten how to organize and get attention. At this year’s AFL-CIO convention, those dissidents staged a coup and elected as president the hard-charging John Sweeney, leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

So why haven’t the District’s public employee unions gotten the message? “You’re talking about unions of bureaucrats, and unions of bureaucrats are not the same as in the private sector, where unions have had to fight for their existence for a long time,” says an AFL-CIO official. “There’s not a history of strikes and fighting, the way there is in the private sector.”

Closer to home, the SEIU offshoot called Justice for Janitors has been very effective in drawing TV cameras and reporters to its disruptive protests. The public employee unions, on the other hand, stage tired rallies that get buried in press reports. When he recalls a recent protest on Capitol Hill, Gessesse says 300 to 400 people attended. Schlein bumps the number up to 1,000. Later, AFGE spokeswoman Magda Lynn Seymour, apparently a graduate of the Louis Farrakhan School of Crowd Estimates, claims there were 3,000 people.

Whatever the true number, the demonstration flopped. “I think it had very little impact,” says Bernard Demczuk, a former union leader who is now Barry’s lobbyist. “I don’t think the unions have spent enough time at the hearings, lobbying members of Congress, educating them, building relationships with them. The struggle may have shifted from street demonstrations to direct communication with members of Congress and their staff.”

But members and congressional staffers say the local unions simply don’t contact them. “They haven’t approached us,” says Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Virginia Republican who chairs the D.C. subcommittee. “And my door is always open. I think they just don’t know what to make of us.”

“The unions have been quiet—surprisingly quiet, I believe,” says Thomas N. Edmonds, a Republican consultant who has worked with conservatives on District issues. Both Edmonds and Davis single out the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee, headed by JC Stamps, as a notable exception. Stamps has joined with SEIU in protests and has negotiated with Republicans, almost winning an extra $42 million for the police department. “They sold their people out,” says Stamps of other union leaders who have been less active.

Besides lobbying, the unions lack the nuts and bolts of political influence. AFSCME, the city’s largest union, didn’t make a single contribution to any candidate in the 1994 mayoral race, according to documents filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance. AFGE, which represents about 5,000 District employees, has donated a total of just $2,275 to nine D.C. candidates since 1990. Moreover, because about 54 percent of District workers live outside the city, the unions can’t convincingly threaten to punish anti-labor politicians at the polls.

“We’ve been excluded. We’re like an afterthought,” says the Doctors Council’s Wilson.

Union leaders will probably continue to do their jobs as they see them—in other words, protect the members at all costs. And there’s a certain moral resonance to this position. “What I think is sometimes forgotten about the unions is that many of them are representing people of very modest means,” says Richard Berendzen, who chaired the Rivlin commission. “We’ve got to cut, and streamline, and cut out the fat, and all the other clichés, which are true, but then you realize you’re talking about a real person, maybe a single mom.” For many Washingtonians, government employment has been the only way to put food on the table.

But, adds Berendzen, “that doesn’t mean the city, which is broke, has to provide [them] with a job.” What’s more, the problem with government unions isn’t that they protect workers. It’s that union leaders protect the worst excesses of featherbedding and waste.

For the most part, union members are fine government workers, no better or worse than most. But by defending shoddy employees, impractical labor practices, and extravagant pay and benefits—all while Washington has taken a fiscal nose dive—the unions relinquished claim to the populist ethic that animates the labor movement.

It didn’t have to be that way, and it still doesn’t. Washington’s public employee unions have a chance to jettison their old philosophy for a new recognition that the District must retrench in order to survive. If they don’t, they will banish themselves from the debate over the city’s future. And they will further chip away at a once-proud movement’s legitimacy.