City labor chief faces tough negotiations

March 09, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Denise F. Gregory, Baltimore's new labor commissioner, arrived on the job this week at a time of edgy relations between the city and its 16,000 workers.

In the face of a budget shortfall, Mayor Martin O'Malley is hoping to hold down some salary raises. He's cracking down on absenteeism among workers. He's looking to gain concessions from city labor unions in negotiations. He is mentioning possible layoffs with growing regularity.

As O'Malley's chief liaison with city unions, "She's walking into a minefield," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Union.

She'll be negotiating labor contracts and mediating employment disputes with a labor force that's 40 times as big as her last job.

Gregory, 31, has spent the past four years as labor negotiator for Community Transit, the public transportation provider for Snohomish County, Wash., a fast-growing area of 600,000 north of Seattle.

Folks there have a message for Baltimore: Don't let Gregory's age and her youthful enthusiasm fool you.

"People definitely underestimated her ability and her knowledge at first," said Dave Thompson, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576, one of the two unions with which Gregory has negotiated.

Thompson said when Gregory arrived in Snohomish County in 1997, she also had to deal with budget cuts and layoffs, but she quickly gained a reputation as a tough negotiator.

"I didn't always agree with her, but for the most part I found her to be a very fair person," Thompson said.

Gregory was born and raised in Delaware. Her mother, Cathy, is deputy director of Delaware's state housing authority. Her father, Frank, retired last summer after 30 years as a teacher.

While studying industrial and organizational psychology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1992, she took a course on labor relations "and just fell in love with it," she said.

While finishing her master's degree in industrial and labor relations from West Virginia University, she started working as a constituent relations officer for then-governor of Delaware, Thomas R. Carper.

"She's a very high-energy, very positive person who has a great love of labor issues," said Jeff Bullock, who is chief of staff for Carper, now a U.S. senator. Bullock also was Carper's chief of staff when Carper was governor. "And she makes up in energy and raw talent what she doesn't have in experience."

During her four years in Washington state, Gregory dealt with more than 400 workers at two unions - ATU and the International Association of Machinists - handling contract negotiations, conflict resolutions, mediation and arbitration. "Anything that ended in a `shun,' " she said.

When Gregory saw an ad in a trade publication for the $92,000-a-year commissioner's job in Baltimore, she looked at it as a chance to move closer to her family - and to be closer to the Maryland blue crabs she loves.

Robert S. Hillman, who since November has served as acting labor commissioner and helped with the search for Gregory, said city officials were impressed by her knowledge of the intricacies of labor negotiations "but also the firmness that's sometimes needed in negotiations."

"We thought she'd fit in very well with the O'Malley team," Hillman said.

Hillman said he reviewed at least a dozen applications and interviewed half of them, but found some of them to be jaded and unenthusiastic. "But we felt Denise looked at it as a real challenge," he said.

Although her age was discussed, "I reminded everyone I was 32 when I was labor commissioner," said Hillman, who served under Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1970s. "And frankly, I thought I did a hell of a job."

Gregory arrives as the city has settled with its two fire unions, which agreed this week to a two-year contract. The Fraternal Order of Police signed a three-year pact in July. But negotiations are about to begin with the two largest unions - the City Union of Baltimore and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 44, which each have about 5,000 members.

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