D.C. AFL-CIO boss Joslyn Williams didn’t just lend his union’s endorsement to Vince Gray’s campaign for mayor—he lent his face. In a 2010 YouTube video with the “Gray for Mayor” logo in the corner, Williams expounded on the worker’s paradise that awaited under a Gray administration.
There was hope, Williams said, that “four years under a Vince Gray administration will create a community where working families can work, live, and play.”
Williams worked for Gray offline, too. After voting unanimously to endorse Gray, his Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions ran an independent campaign against then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, and some of its 150,000 D.C. area members volunteered for Gray. “We take some credit for [Gray’s] victory,” Williams tells LL.
Three years later, Williams gives speeches at rallies where audience members wave pictures of the mayor and chant “No Gray area.” His go-to speech, a litany of Gray’s betrayals of labor, centers on candidate questionnaires Gray filled out in 2006 and 2010 that Williams says now show the mayor broke his promises. Williams’ bill of grievances is long, but the message is short: Labor was tricked.
Gray’s once-close relationship with labor has become strained because of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, known everywhere outside of the D.C. Council secretary’s office as “the Walmart bill.” The bill, which would have required large nonunionized retailers to pay $12.50 an hour (or less, with benefits), passed the Council with eight votes in July. Gray vetoed the bill last week, despite campaign-trail statements that he supported raising wages at Walmart.
In a letter explaining the veto, Gray said it would kill jobs. The specific jobs Gray may have had an eye on were those at two stores in Ward 7, Gray’s home ward, including at the long-stagnant Skyland development; Walmart said it would cancel plans to build those stores if the bill became law. On Tuesday, Council chairman failed to override Gray’s veto by two votes. But while the bill is dead, the bad blood between Gray and labor remains.
Gray’s spoiled relationship with labor is about more than hurt feelings, though. It’s a clue to the question looming over District politics: whether Gray, 70 years old and under federal investigation, will try to hang on to the top spot next year. The mayor’s relentless march of ribbon-cuttings at new schools and playgrounds points to a second term. His veto, though, suggests that the mayor may be headed for the exit. Gray’s other big edge in the 2010 race—the shadow campaign allegedly funded by Jeff Thompson—won’t be a factor, either. If Gray doesn’t even have labor backing him anymore, what’s left?
Labor certainly was on Gray’s side in the last race. That may have less to do with Gray’s solidarity bona fides, though, and more to do with the fact that Fenty’s mayoralty makes Gray look like Mother Jones.
“Fenty was so bad, and Vince Gray said a lot of the right things,” says Carl Goldman, the executive director of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 26. Goldman, who was involved in the Metropolitan Washington Council’s 2010 endorsement process, says Gray was an easy choice when compared to his competition.
That made union support for Gray as much about pushing the scourge of the teachers’ union out of the Wilson Building as putting Gray in the job. Gray’s 2010 primary victory party, a previous LL noted, featured AFSCME flyers with “BYE!” printed under Fenty’s photo—but no mention of the man who would replace him.
Winning that kind of support won’t be so easy in 2014. The AFL-CIO’s Williams estimates that, with his living-wage veto, Gray would struggle to get the required two-thirds endorsement of the membership. “It would be difficult as things stand now,” he says.
One thing working in Gray’s favor is that no other candidate is an obvious choice for labor. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, both mayoral hopefuls, voted against the living wage bill. So did At-Large Councilmember David Catania, another potential mayoral candidate.
As a result, they’ve been competing to introduce their own citywide minimum-wage bills to make good with labor. Wells, Bowser, and Catania each introduced legislation on wages at Tuesday’s Council session, but their bills are unlikely to make unions forget that they stood in the way of an override of Gray’s veto. Bowser’s bill only creates a commission to study raising the minimum wage. Wells’ wage—$10.25 an hour—is a paltry increase when compared to the $12.50 the LRAA would have mandated. Catania’s bill, at $10.50, is only a quarter better. Outside Tuesday’s Council meeting about the LRAA, protesters held up signs with Bowser’s, Wells’, and Catania’s faces, urging them to override.
One mayoral candidate wasn’t on the signs: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who, incredibly, has become a leading candidate for labor. Evans, long the favorite councilmember of the D.C. business community, was the lone major mayoral candidate who voted for the LRAA. He’s already snagged the endorsement of one of the area’s less prominent unions, the Maryland/D.C. State Council of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Bowser suspects that Evans’ motivations are less than pure, telling LL: “He’s doing mental, political gymnastics on that thing.” In a statement responding to Bowser’s comment, Evans says the living wage bill was consistent with his record of “creating good paying jobs for District residents.”
Still, the uncertainty thrown over the race by Gray’s potential run could be keeping out more labor-friendly candidates, according to Williams. “They’re keeping their powder dry,” he says of the unions.
Gray, talking to LL at yet another ribbon-cutting, denies that his relationship with labor has soured. A day after vetoing the living wage bill, he says he hasn’t been contacted by anyone opposed to the veto.
But asked whether his brush-off of labor means his mayoral campaign is off, Gray is less tranquil. “I would say that the unions need to evaluate what I have done with the unions over the past,” says Gray. “Nobody who’s a leader is going to evaluate a relationship over the basis of one incident or one episode.”
Just in case the union leaders do, though, Gray has been making sure they have lots of incidents to choose from. He’s promised to push his own bill to raise the minimum wage, although exactly how high he would like to see it he hasn’t revealed.
But his most drastic attempt to woo labor came last week, when, seemingly apropos of nothing, he summoned union members and the District press corps to Nationals Park. City administrator Allen Lew, negotiating with the owners of D.C. United and construction unions, had reached a “Project Labor Agreement” for the construction of a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point. The PLA, similar to the one that was used to construct Nationals Park, is a cushy one for the District’s unions: It gives their members priority for the largest contracts involved in the stadium construction.
The timing seemed suspicious, since the stadium deal itself is months away from Council approval. The city doesn’t even have agreements to obtain all of the land the stadium will be built on yet. Gray said he was just announcing it because it was finished. Two days later, he vetoed the LRAA.
If Gray is hoping to win back the unions, though, it doesn’t seem to be working. AFSCME’s Goldman, at least, isn’t impressed. “I’ll have to think long and hard before I’d consider endorsing him again,” he says. The way things are going, he might not get the chance. CP
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Update, 2:30 p.m.: After press time, LL talked to a D.C. union leader who still supports the mayor.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery