City, unions face tough negotiations

Possibility of layoffs in budget proposal seen as threat

Mayor says it's no `ploy'

Officials might seek concessions from benefits package

April 01, 2001|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore began contract negotiations with its two largest workers' unions last week in what is expected to be a tug of war between the cash-strapped city and employees accustomed to generous benefits packages.

The timing for the public employees couldn't have been worse.

They entered negotiations facing the possibility of 500 layoffs in Mayor Martin O'Malley's preliminary budget proposal. Some of the city's 16,000 workers and their union representatives fear the city has been wielding that threat of layoffs as a tool to gain leverage in the contract negotiations.

"They shouldn't be called `layoffs,' they should be called `firings,'" said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 44, which represents more than 5,000 mostly blue-collar workers. "We just want to be treated as fairly as the police and the firefighters, because our jobs are just as important."

The city's 3,200 police officers received a 7 percent pay raise this year and will get another 8 percent next year. The 1,600 firefighters, who recently settled a yearlong contract dispute with the city, will receive a 7 percent raise this year and raises from 3.5 to 6 percent next year.

But for the remaining 12,000 employees -- most of whom are represented by AFSCME or the City Union of Baltimore (CUB) -- the message has been clear: Don't expect much of a raise, and be prepared to give back some of your benefits.

Last year, most of those 12,000 received 2.25 percent raises.

O'Malley unveiled last week his proposed $1.6 billion operating budget for next year that calls for deep spending cuts and potentially more than 500 layoffs.

The mayor said the possibility of layoffs is real, and that he is not using that as a threat to gain concessions from the unions.

"It's not a ploy," he said. "I'm not rattling the sabers and contriving this. ... If anybody thinks it's contrived, they're wrong. I'm not making any of this up."

However, O'Malley said he did hope the city can persuade unions to give something up. Officials in the mayor's office said they want employees to pay more of their health care costs and to accept restrictions on sick and personal leave.

Baltimore workers receive more sick time, vacation and personal days than employees in most other large cities, according to city officials and independent studies of worker benefits. And many employees enrolled in the city's health-maintenance organization plan make no contributions to their health insurance and make minimum co-payments for drug prescriptions.

Over the years, the unions have been willing to accept lower pay than their counterparts in other cities and in the private sector, in exchange for stronger benefits packages.

But city officials say those benefits may be costing too much.

"One thing that would give us greater flexibility [in the budget] is if there were some greater concessions on the part of the two unions whose contracts we're renegotiating," O'Malley said.

CUB, which represents about 5,000 workers, and AFSCME have one-year contracts that expire June 30, the end of the city's budget year. Negotiations are being led by the city's new labor commissioner, Denise F. Gregory.

CUB President Sheila Jordan said that for a year O'Malley has talked publicly and with downtown business leaders -- such as members of the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable -- about layoffs and privatization. But, she said, he has not communicated effectively with the unions and the workers, which has created a mood of panic and distrust among workers.

"We really want to try to develop a trusting relationship," Jordan said. "I shouldn't hear from the news media about changes that are going to affect our members."

And she said the threat of layoffs has been used as leverage to gain concessions from the unions.

"They made it clear last year that they're coming back this year looking for some kind of concessions, probably in the area of health care," Jordan said.

But concessions will be difficult for some workers to swallow at a time when police and firefighters are not being asked to make the same sacrifices.

"I understand it's a painful time. But if it's painful, it shouldn't just be painful for the bottom-scale workers," said AFSCME's Middleton. "The pain should be spread across all areas."

O'Malley says the city is cutting in all areas, except the Police Department. "We didn't do it because we felt like being generous to police officers," he said. "It's an investment we had to make."

Investing in public safety -- even at the expense of other employees -- "is the essential investment that's needed to bring this city back," he said.

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