Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has asked the unions representing Baltimore's 28,000 employees for major concessions -- including the possible elimination of already-negotiated pay raises -- to help erase a $54.1 million shortfall predicted for next year's budget.
The mayor told the union leaders at a City Hall meeting Friday that scrapping the pay increases scheduled for July 1 would save the city $38 million, according to Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman.
Failing that, Mr. Schmoke has asked the unions to present alternative ways of trimming labor costs, which take the biggest share of the city's current $1.8 billion operating budget, according to administration officials.
But leaders of the city's unions, while expressing sympathy for the mayor's plight, were uniformly cool yesterday to suggestions of wage increase give-backs, and some said they would rather accept layoffs.
"Once you start giving back, then they will ask you to do it every year," said Sallie W. Williams, staff representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. ". . . Let them have layoffs, but as long as we have one worker, then give that worker what was negotiated."
While Mr. Schmoke denied that he had directly asked the union leaders to forgo the pay increases that were negotiated with the city last year, he made it plain that he was looking for major concessions to help the city out of its budget pinch.
"We have to make some decisions soon because we have to get notifications to employees," the mayor said yesterday. "If we don't get substantial relief from the state, then we have to close the gap just using our own resources."
Closing the gap, he said, cannot be done without cutting back on labor costs.
As an alternative to forgoing the wage increases, the mayor asked union officials to consider other ways to save on wages. Among them were a simple deferral of the expected raises rather than elimination of them altogether, employee furloughs or early retirements.
However, anything less than elimination of the scheduled wage increases would probably mean a combination of alternatives -- none of them particularly palatable to the unions.
Without cost-cutting concessions, the city would have to lay off 1,700 to 1,800 employees to match the $38 million savings a wage freeze would bring, according to Jesse Hoskins, the acting labor commissioner.
"If there were a concession in wages, there would be less impact in terms of employees being laid off," Mr. Hoskins said.
Perhaps as a signal to the unions that he is willing to make the city's highest-paid employees share the burden of the city's fiscal plight, he told 40 of his top aides, including members of his Cabinet, that their salaries would be frozen, according to Mr. Coleman.
Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of the Baltimore Firefighters Union, which is in the middle a two-year contract that would bring its 1,400 members a 6 percent pay increase this year, said that he informally polled firefighters yesterday and that they were overwhelmingly opposed to wage concessions.
"I think it is wrongful for the mayor to expect people who don't make a lot to begin with to give back," said Mr. DeLisle, who said the city should make its bureaucracy more efficient before asking its workers to make sacrifices. "We make less than the counties do, what the federal government does and what firefighters in other cities do."
Members of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which is currently negotiating for a pay raise, also appear eager for more money. "We are definitely looking for a raise," said Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the union. "Our goal was to reach salary levels that are comparable to the surrounding counties."
Ms. Williams said that AFSCME's roughly 6,000 members in city government had been forced to live with modest wage increases through the 1980s and that the union leadership would not likely recommend that rank-and-file city workers accept a wage freeze.
She said AFSCME, which represents mostly blue-collar workers, were not convinced that the city's tight finances warranted wage concessions and were willing to risk layoffs in order to preserve negotiated pay increases.
The Schmoke administration finds itself in a wage crunch only one year after negotiating contracts that at the time were questioned as possibly too generous, given the city's chronic problems of a shrinking tax base, soaring expenses and other fiscal maladies.
For example, under the contract won by AFSCME last year, workers received a 4 percent pay increase last July 1 and a 2 percent increase Jan. 1, and they are to receive another 6 percent increase July 1, Ms. Williams said.
Mr. Schmoke emphasized that rather than demanding concessions from the unions, he was asking for their ideas on how the city could save money on labor costs. But it is clear that in putting it that way, the mayor is in effect telling union leaders to make the difficult choice between wage concessions or layoffs.
Members of the City Council were briefed by the mayor yesterday.
Some council members, including Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, said that because city officials did not know how much state aid would flow to the city from the General Assembly as a result of the 1991 legislative session, it was too early to suggest that city employees take a mass wage freeze.
Other council members, including Jacqueline F. McLean, D-2nd, said a wage freeze would be preferable to layoffs.