Mayoral hopefuls in tricky spot with unions

Plans to slice deficit may hurt endorsements

June 14, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Gaining the endorsement of the city's top five employee unions in a Baltimore mayoral election year has always been considered a blessing.

Union support traditionally converts into campaign cash, tireless volunteers and immeasurable word-of-mouth votes.

But as Baltimore faces a $153 million budget deficit over the next four years, attracting the union label for the city's first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years might turn into a burden.

Analysts -- including departing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- contend that the new mayor will be forced to challenge the city work force to close the city's financial gap. Suggestions include cutting the number of available city jobs, requiring workers to pay more for health benefits and persuading the unions to allow private companies to bid on city services.

By courting city unions -- one of the city's fire unions endorsed a candidate last week -- mayoral hopefuls will put themselves in the precarious position of gaining support from a key component of the city's structural woes.

"In a year like this when you have this sort of horse race going on, it's potentially a vast problem," said Douglas P. Munro of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research. "It would be better for taxpayers if our service providers had to compete for our business rather mayoral candidates had to compete for union support."

Few endorsements

In one of the few union endorsements made so far, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III gained the endorsement Friday of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association. But the absence of the city's other fire union, the Baltimore Firefighters, was evidence of bickering among the city labor forces over where to place their support in the mayor's race.

The city's American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44 is negotiating a contract that expires at the end of the month. The roughly 5,000-member union represents everyone from secretaries to trash haulers in the city.

AFSCME union leaders say they intend to meet with all mayoral contenders to determine who can deliver campaign pledges they most seek: adequate pay raises, job security and opposition to the city's privatization move.

"We think this race is the race for the future of whether labor can survive in this city," said Glen Middleton, president of the city AFSCME union.

Middleton acknowledges that during his 12-year council tenure, Bell has consistently supported city workers, most recently introducing legislation that would make it harder for the city to hire private companies. But Middleton also fears that with Baltimore's dire financial troubles, any loyalty of the next mayor to the city's 16,000 employees will be severely tested.

"The candidate we endorse has to earn our support," Middleton said.

Work force issues

Last year, the Calvert Institute conducted a study showing that Baltimore carried 5,500 more workers than six comparable cities in the Northeast, costing Baltimore taxpayers $224 million a year.

In addition, Schmoke recently created a study group to explore hiring private companies to bid on city services, a move that has helped the city of Indianapolis reduce spending and cut the city work force without layoffs.

The chief request from city labor leaders is to be included more in discussions on how providing city services should be restructured. The outcome of the race is as important to the unions as to the candidates, they say.

"It's the city workers who are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Stephen G. Fugate, president of the fire officers association. "There is no guarantee that a candidate will keep their pledges and we've been burned more than once in the past."

Last week, Bell gained the backing of the United Auto Workers union in Baltimore that represents 3,000 members at the Baltimore General Motors plant, the city's largest private employer.

The 37-year-old West Baltimore councilman first elected in 1987 topped a poll released last week by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. of Baltimore naming him the front-runner among declared Democrat mayoral candidates.

Bell's strongest challenger for the Sept. 14 primary that traditionally decides the race appears to be former East Baltimore Councilman Carl F. Stokes.

Other declared candidates include Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway and community activists William E. Roberts, Phillip A. Brown Jr. and A. Robert Kaufman, founder of the City Wide Coalition, a citizens group pushing for city insurance reform.

Last week, AFSCME leaders met with Stokes to discuss his labor positions. Stokes, who sponsored living wage legislation in the council and on the school board, said that he supports allowing private companies to compete with labor unions over city services but only after labor is consulted about any changes.

AFSCME leaders, however, walked away from the Stokes discussion with the impression that he opposed any privatization, they said.

Clarifying such messages, Middleton and aides like Jeanette Hall say, is more crucial than ever for unions because of the city's lingering financial woes.

"You need unions to get where you're trying to go," Hall said when asked what message she had for candidates.

"And I'm holding the trump card."

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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