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Last September at Vince Gray’s primary-night victory party, amid the line dancing to Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose,” union officials passed out posters with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s picture on them under the word “BYE!”
The posters were printed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the larger public-employee unions in the District, which—like the rest of the city’s public-sector unions—absolutely loathed Fenty.
“We share this victorious moment with all of the voters and volunteers who believed and worked so hard to remove Adrian Fenty from office,” the posters read, which had nary a mention of the guy who actually beat Fenty and would soon be mayor.
A day after the election, Politico ran a story quoting an anonymous Democratic consultant saying the American Federation of Teachers put roughly $1 million into helping Gray. Without the union’s help, the consultant mused, the “race might have been a coin flip.”
Victory has a thousand fathers, and the reasons for Gray’s win extend beyond the unions’ help. But still, the narrative of public-sector unions as Fenty’s dispatcher and Gray’s kingmaker is one that labor leaders are happy to promote.
“This is still a labor-friendly city,” says James Ivey, president of AFSCME Local 2091. “Whether folks might acknowledge it or not, we’re still in the mix.” Ivey says AFSCME spent about $70,000 in last year’s election and was key to the get-out-the vote efforts in Wards 7 and 8.
It’s also a narrative that Gray’s critics have used to portray him as in the pocket of the unions that helped get him elected.
So it’s worth taking a look, eight months after Gray took office, at what the mayor’s relationship with the District’s public-sector unions looks like. What LL found is that labor leaders feel like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed: They’re thrilled even to have gotten a glance from the celluloid dreamboat. But there are signs that the rom-com part of Gray’s administration may be over.
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When the new administration took overin January, City Administrator Allen Lew says, the city’s lawyers said he needed to send a letter to union officials formally informing them that the D.C. Council had approved furloughs for city employees to fill a budget gap.
“I said, ‘I can’t do it that way…I need to sit down with the leaders,’” Lew says, adding that those initial meetings have set the tone for a new relationship between the city and public-sector unions.
“I’ve been trying to repair the relationship,” says Lew. “We realize that management can’t do it without labor.”
Lew says he’s since had countless meetings with labor officials over long-standing problems, including “silly” issues like how much a crossing guard’s uniform allowance should be. Lew says labor leaders have been honest partners and had reasonable requests: “I don’t have a blank check; they know that.”
Many union leaders agree, saying Gray has done well to acknowledge labor’s issues and problems compared to Fenty, who they say almost completely ignored them.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re part of the menu,” says Ivey.
Not that the spot at the table has translated to any great gains for public-sector workers’ pay or benefits. Gray, after all, didn’t have to promise much more than an ear to win their support; such was the mutual disdain between Fenty and the unions. (In fact, after the election, Fenty went on national television to voice support for Wisconsin’s union-busting Republican governor, Scott Walker.)
“We couldn’t go wrong no matter who ran, for real,” says Nila Ritenour, who represents the city’s prison guards.
The most interesting labor relationship to watch has been between Gray and the Washington Teachers’ Union fiery leader, Nathan Saunders. Saunders was elected shortly before Gray took office and came in promising to fight against some of the policies implemented by former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
“What we’ve experienced in the last three years is a lot of blood on the floor, and it’s been all teacher blood,” Saunders told the Washington Post after he won a heated WTU election.
But Saunders has been mostly quiet since taking over. He disapproved of the process Gray used to appoint Kaya Henderson, one of Rhee’s former top aides, as permanent chancellor but was quiet about it. When the school system used the Rhee-designed IMPACT ratings to dismiss 206 teachers earlier this summer, Saunders spoke up against the firings but didn’t raise much of a fuss.
Saunders says he’s been accommodating of the mayor while he deals with the fallout from various early hiring scandals. But now that Gray appears to have found his “sea legs,” says Saunders, he wants “some real movement” on changing IMPACT so there’s a greater emphasis on job security for teachers.
“We will push a little harder,” says Saunders. “It’s a time for adjustment.” For now, Saunders says Gray is still his union’s guy, but that his support is not absolute. “I certainly don’t want to come off as, no matter what the mayor does, we are supportive of him,” says Saunders.
Saunders adds that he thinks labor’s power is growing and points to the recent election of Vincent Orange, who was endorsed by WTU and AFSCME, as proof that labor’s electoral muscle extends past last year’s mayor’s race. Same goes, says Saunders, for the recent election of Ward 8’s Trayon White to the school board.
“[There’s] noting that precludes us from being potent in ANC races,” says Saunders.
If Saunders is true to his word and does begin to push harder on changing IMPACT, then it could mean a big headache for Gray. It’s one thing to boost the clothing allowance of a crossing guard; it’s quite another to start unraveling the signature piece of the education-reform movement, a movement Gray has taken pains to reassure his commitment to.
If push comes to shove, there’s some precedent as to how Gray might act, and it doesn’t look good for labor. During the campaign, Gray released a public-safety plan pledging to end “short-term ploys and gimmicks” in the police department. Fraternal Order of Police boss Kris Baumann says the paper was referring to, among other things, Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s All Hands on Deck initiative, in which all available officers are deployed on certain weekends. “I know what [Gray] meant because I wrote it,” says Baumann. But that initiative has continued, despite a recent ruling by an arbitrator that past All Hands on Deck weekends violated the police union’s contract.
Gray’s tacit approval of Lanier’s policy likely has more to do with showing support for a popular chief, but there’s also this political calculus to consider: Labor support isn’t essential to a politician’s success in this town.
Pro-labor councilmembers complain that public-sector unions only mobilize when they’re opposed to something and provide little valuable help during campaigns. When union workers do show up to help work the polls, say two labor-friendly councilmembers, they’re often not much help. (Labor’s still powerful enough, though, that those councilmembers didn’t want to be identified griping about the unions.)
Besides an endorsement candidates can slap on their literature and a small number of donations, a public-sector union’s support is “fairly useless,” says one councilmember.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who politely says she thinks the public-sector unions are “still pretty influential,” doesn’t bother looking for union support come campaign season. “I don’t know if I would ever need or ask for their help,” she says.
The big question now, as Gray reboots his administration? Whether the mayor, who’s had labor’s help so far, will continue to believe he needs it.
Photo of Nathan Saunders by Darrow Montgomery
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