The three-year contracts that the city's two firefighters unions grudgingly ratified last week may represent more than a measure of fiscal stability in the foreseeable future for Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration. The deals that gave union members 3 percent annual raises also handed the mayor what he most wanted from negotiations: health care concessions and long-term agreements to stabilize budget planning.
And city officials hope that the police union and the two bargaining units for nonpublic safety workers will follow suit.
Union leaders, however, say O'Malley has a political ambition in his sights in pushing for the three-year deals: labor peace through 2006, when the mayor is expected to run for governor against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"The mayor does not want to have to deal with bargaining groups going into '06," said Steve Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Union Local 964 and an Ehrlich supporter. "There's not a mayoral election in '06. Put two and two together."
O'Malley and Labor Commissioner Sean R. Malone said the city had no political motives in pursuing three-year contracts, the longest that the firefighter unions have agreed to in at least three decades. Malone said three-year deals are more efficient than one-year contracts or two-year agreements like the ones the firefighters unions signed last year.
Those contracts effectively functioned as one-year deals because they allowed for renegotiations on wages after one year. Those mid-contract talks on wages began this summer before Malone pitched the idea of signing new, three-year contracts. Long-term deals, Malone said, save both sides money by avoiding annual bargaining.
"It doesn't have anything to do with elections," Malone said.
The mayor also said the new deals, which begin retroactive to July 1, are fair considering the city's budget constraints. Although two unions get 3 percent pay raises each Jan. 1 beginning next year, firefighters will have to pay more for health insurance beginning Jan. 1, 2006 - but only if the police union agrees to similar increases.
"There are cities all across America this year, for example, that have had to lay off police officers and have had to close firehouses," O'Malley said.
Benefits for mayor
O'Malley has said nothing publicly about running for governor, and union officials do not expect him to admit that the contracts benefit his presumed political ambitions.
But they say the benefit is obvious if O'Malley does not have to negotiate with the five bargaining units in the city while running for office.
During last year's primary election, O'Malley incurred the wrath of the City Union of Baltimore and AFSCME Local 44 because of protracted negotiations with the units representing nonpublic safety workers. The groups held a large protest outside City Hall. Glenard C. Middleton, president of the AFSCME local, also engineered a defeat for O'Malley when AFL-CIO leaders failed to overcome AFSCME objections to endorsing O'Malley for mayor.
Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs, said O'Malley would be able to avoid such protests in 2006 if contracts are settled.
"Labor stability would make a difference," Henderson said.
Dan Fickus, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said his union is in negotiations for a deal similar to the firefighters'. He said the three-year deals "make good political sense" for O'Malley.
Middleton said Malone has asked him for early negotiations.
"I believe the mayor wants to have labor peace," Middleton said. "The only way to do that is to have long-term contracts. How can there not be a political agenda?"
But Middleton and other union leaders cautioned that long-term deals might have the opposite effect.
"It could work against him," said Richard G. Schluderberg, president of the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Local 734, which endorsed Ehrlich in the 2002 election. "We can say whatever we want because we don't have to worry about whether it's going to mess up the contract."
Schluderberg and Fugate said their groups' members are not happy with their three-year deals. They endorsed O'Malley for mayor last year and expected better contracts. The groups asked for 9.5 percent raises over three years. The city offered no more than 9 percent.
Fugate said O'Malley would have a hard time earning their endorsement in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary over the mayor's expected challenger, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. The union president said Duncan would likely get their backing because he enjoys strong support from his county's firefighters, who are hosting to the statewide convention of professional firefighters in August next year.
"If the Montgomery County firefighters said, `[Duncan] is a prince and he's given us good contracts,' we wouldn't even question his qualifications. We'd endorse him," Fugate said. "There's not a snowball's chance in hell that we would endorse O'Malley in 2006."