Loose Lips

State of the Unions

D.C. Labor Unions Assess Mayor Vince Gray's Administration

Last September at Vince Gray’s primary-night victory party, amid the line dancing to Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose,” union officials passed out posters with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s picture on them under the word “BYE!”

The posters were printed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the larger public-employee unions in the District, which—like the rest of the city’s public-sector unions—absolutely loathed Fenty.

“We share this victorious moment with all of the voters and volunteers who believed and worked so hard to remove Adrian Fenty from office,” the posters read, which had nary a mention of the guy who actually beat Fenty and would soon be mayor.

A day after the election, Politico ran a story quoting an anonymous Democratic consultant saying the American Federation of Teachers put roughly $1 million into helping Gray. Without the union’s help, the consultant mused, the “race might have been a coin flip.”

Victory has a thousand fathers, and the reasons for Gray’s win extend beyond the unions’ help. But still, the narrative of public-sector unions as Fenty’s dispatcher and Gray’s kingmaker is one that labor leaders are happy to promote.

“This is still a labor-friendly city,” says James Ivey, president of AFSCME Local 2091. “Whether folks might acknowledge it or not, we’re still in the mix.” Ivey says AFSCME spent about $70,000 in last year’s election and was key to the get-out-the vote efforts in Wards 7 and 8.

It’s also a narrative that Gray’s critics have used to portray him as in the pocket of the unions that helped get him elected.

So it’s worth taking a look, eight months after Gray took office, at what the mayor’s relationship with the District’s public-sector unions looks like. What LL found is that labor leaders feel like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed: They’re thrilled even to have gotten a glance from the celluloid dreamboat. But there are signs that the rom-com part of Gray’s administration may be over.

* * *

When the new administration took overin January, City Administrator Allen Lew says, the city’s lawyers said he needed to send a letter to union officials formally informing them that the D.C. Council had approved furloughs for city employees to fill a budget gap.

“I said, ‘I can’t do it that way...I need to sit down with the leaders,’” Lew says, adding that those initial meetings have set the tone for a new relationship between the city and public-sector unions.

“I’ve been trying to repair the relationship,” says Lew. “We realize that management can’t do it without labor.”

Lew says he’s since had countless meetings with labor officials over long-standing problems, including “silly” issues like how much a crossing guard’s uniform allowance should be. Lew says labor leaders have been honest partners and had reasonable requests: “I don’t have a blank check; they know that.”

Many union leaders agree, saying Gray has done well to acknowledge labor’s issues and problems compared to Fenty, who they say almost completely ignored them.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re part of the menu,” says Ivey.

Not that the spot at the table has translated to any great gains for public-sector workers’ pay or benefits. Gray, after all, didn’t have to promise much more than an ear to win their support; such was the mutual disdain between Fenty and the unions. (In fact, after the election, Fenty went on national television to voice support for Wisconsin’s union-busting Republican governor, Scott Walker.)

“We couldn’t go wrong no matter who ran, for real,” says Nila Ritenour, who represents the city’s prison guards.

The most interesting labor relationship to watch has been between Gray and the Washington Teachers’ Union fiery leader, Nathan Saunders. Saunders was elected shortly before Gray took office and came in promising to fight against some of the policies implemented by former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

“What we’ve experienced in the last three years is a lot of blood on the floor, and it’s been all teacher blood,” Saunders told the Washington Post after he won a heated WTU election.

But Saunders has been mostly quiet since taking over. He disapproved of the process Gray used to appoint Kaya Henderson, one of Rhee’s former top aides, as permanent chancellor but was quiet about it. When the school system used the Rhee-designed IMPACT ratings to dismiss 206 teachers earlier this summer, Saunders spoke up against the firings but didn’t raise much of a fuss.

Saunders says he’s been accommodating of the mayor while he deals with the fallout from various early hiring scandals. But now that Gray appears to have found his “sea legs,” says Saunders, he wants “some real movement” on changing IMPACT so there’s a greater emphasis on job security for teachers.

“We will push a little harder,” says Saunders. “It’s a time for adjustment.” For now, Saunders says Gray is still his union’s guy, but that his support is not absolute. “I certainly don’t want to come off as, no matter what the mayor does, we are supportive of him,” says Saunders.

Saunders adds that he thinks labor’s power is growing and points to the recent election of Vincent Orange, who was endorsed by WTU and AFSCME, as proof that labor’s electoral muscle extends past last year’s mayor’s race. Same goes, says Saunders, for the recent election of Ward 8’s Trayon White to the school board.

“[There’s] noting that precludes us from being potent in ANC races,” says Saunders.

If Saunders is true to his word and does begin to push harder on changing IMPACT, then it could mean a big headache for Gray. It’s one thing to boost the clothing allowance of a crossing guard; it’s quite another to start unraveling the signature piece of the education-reform movement, a movement Gray has taken pains to reassure his commitment to.

If push comes to shove, there’s some precedent as to how Gray might act, and it doesn’t look good for labor. During the campaign, Gray released a public-safety plan pledging to end “short-term ploys and gimmicks” in the police department. Fraternal Order of Police boss Kris Baumann says the paper was referring to, among other things, Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s All Hands on Deck initiative, in which all available officers are deployed on certain weekends. “I know what [Gray] meant because I wrote it,” says Baumann. But that initiative has continued, despite a recent ruling by an arbitrator that past All Hands on Deck weekends violated the police union’s contract.

Gray’s tacit approval of Lanier’s policy likely has more to do with showing support for a popular chief, but there’s also this political calculus to consider: Labor support isn’t essential to a politician’s success in this town.

Pro-labor councilmembers complain that public-sector unions only mobilize when they’re opposed to something and provide little valuable help during campaigns. When union workers do show up to help work the polls, say two labor-friendly councilmembers, they’re often not much help. (Labor’s still powerful enough, though, that those councilmembers didn’t want to be identified griping about the unions.)

Besides an endorsement candidates can slap on their literature and a small number of donations, a public-sector union’s support is “fairly useless,” says one councilmember.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who politely says she thinks the public-sector unions are “still pretty influential,” doesn’t bother looking for union support come campaign season. “I don’t know if I would ever need or ask for their help,” she says.

The big question now, as Gray reboots his administration? Whether the mayor, who’s had labor’s help so far, will continue to believe he needs it.

Photo of Nathan Saunders by Darrow Montgomery

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

  • Anothernative

    Who ever the cockamaimy council members were that said labor unions aren't any good beyond an endorsment, are either posturing for the CP or just plain out of touch. Labor unions that are effective are the ground troops for any campaign they are envolved in and do most of the grunt work ie. nieghborhood canvassing, subway lit drops not to mention setting up call centers, literature bundling and dispursment, robocalls etc. The reason for the rock throwing and hiding of the hands by these council persons clearly show that they really don't want to get on the wrong side of this so called meaningless labor machine. Hopefully the Mayor will recognize the value of establishing a true partnership with labor like a former Mayor (Anthony Williams) finally did with the help and insight of former City Administrator John Constinant, excuse if I mispelled the name. Mr. Constinant really used that relationship for progressing the city and was highly effective I might add. Lets hope that Mr. Lew has a similar path in mind, if you look back on that duo you'll see how much the city advanced during they're tenure.

  • teamtango

    John Koskinen and yes, he served the District well (2000 -2003)

  • Skipper

    It is refreshing to hear that Gray's campaign "policy papers" were written by hacks and lobbyists and were never intended to be actual policy statements.

    One City!

  • Terry Miller

    Gray needs to get out a lot of the hold overs from the Fenty administration, including folks at the Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining, who were influential in sticking it to the unions during the Fenty administration. Those folks are still there and they have blood on their hands.


    @Terry Miller, That's so on point.

  • point

    It should be noted that private sector unions punch well above their weight in the District. SEIU and UNITE HERE Local 25 spend significant resources on campaigns and turn out members to knock doors and make calls.

    More importantly, there's nothing stopping the public sector unions from improving their political performance and becoming a strong voice again. All it takes is hard work.

  • Tom M.

    Let's look at AFT and IMPACT. If even ONE of the 206 teachers let go as a result of the IMPACT system had a good case for keeping their job, you can believe that Saunders and AFT would have pushed that story out through as many channels and as loudly as possible. Do you remember all the stories about teachers wrongly fired? I thought not. So, there WERE NO WRONGLY FIRED TEACHERS. Saunders doesn't get it yet. Getting rid of BAD teachers HELPS good teachers and the politicians who want to spend money on education. Why? Because the failure of the sytem for DECADES to get bad teachers out of the classroom has terribly eroded public/taxpayer confidence in the DCPS. New buildings and shiny remodeling will get parents to take a second look at DCPS, but a bad teacher or two will get them streaming back out. Hey AFT - Do you want to protect TENURE and JOB SECURITY or do you want more for public education? The deal was much higher pay for high performing teachers in exchange for getting the bad ones out. BTW the contract WITH IMPACT was ratified by the overwhelming majority of voting members.

  • Tom M.

    The contract AGREEMENT in place was arrived at between Randi Weingarten, National President AFT and Michelle Rhee of DCPS. Remember? Do teachers want to give back the other provisions of the agreement? Salary increases of more than 20 percent over five years

    Weingarten said: "There was a lot of anger and a lot of misinterpretation of each other's positions, but the best collective bargaining processes are ones where you are solving problems. Here the issue was how do we help kids in D.C. public schools and ensure teachers have the tools to help them."

    The agreement included a voluntary pay-for-performance program. Teachers earn annual bonuses for student growth on standardized tests and other measures of academic success. It also calls for dramatically expanded professional development opportunities for teachers -- including school-based professional development centers -- and mentoring and induction programs for new educators.

  • Drez

    I'd like to like unions, really I would. It'd make my life so much easier if I could.
    But they don't make it easy.
    They need to change before the fact that they are declining into irrelevance will.

  • Margaret B

    Most teachers believe Mayor Gray threw teachers under the bus. He reniged on his pledge of an nation wide search for chancellor. He,or the council for that matter, never questioned the premises and faulty research on Ms.Rhees socalled reforms. In fact, they act like Ms.Rhee's main problem was a personality disorder instead of a bankrupt philosophy. If Mr. Gray runs again, I'll sit out that election.

  • Tom M.

    Margaret B - I hope you are NOT a teacher in light of the significant misspellings and other grammatical errors. For example - "reniged" is not reneged. Nation wide should be a single word - nationwide. "He or the council for that matter, never" Should read something like Neither he nor the Council for that matter, questioned..." Ms. Rhees should read Ms. Rhee's. "socalled" is not a word. So called is two words. Instead is a poor word choice given your intended meaning. How about rather than. I would encourage you to sit out the next election as you suggest, however.

  • Frank

    I guess for the Alan Suderman's of the world its all about the unions. But it isn't, Alan. You see, Alan, its about the kids. The "unions" you're talking about are public-employee unions, and specifically teacher's unions. These unions fight ANY improvement to the school system in accountability, etc, etc. They don't care about the teacher's. They care about their money, their political power, etc. The best thing for D.C.'s kids (and all around the country) is that due to insane spending over the last 20 years, all cities and localities are on the verge of bankruptcy. When that happens - and it will -the unions contracts will be thrown in the garbage where they belong. Only then will education in the cities improve. Look how the funding and situation has improved in Wisconsin has improved in just a very short time. When you care only for some misguided idealist b.s. of the past, your future dries up. Time for you "nice" lefties to get out of the way and let the adults take over so the kid's can get a good education and thus get a good job. See? THAT's whats its really all about, not some union boss getting a nicer office and using union influence to get more and more money in the face of a dead U.S. economy.

  • Sue

    Michele Rhee was the only real hope for these kids. But Kaya Henderson is continuing to do the things that are best for the education of our children. Its important to stand up to teacher's unions so that good teacher's can improve and bad teacher's can be weeded out. This isn't some welfare program for teachers. It is an education system that has failed its duties miserably. Time to move on, unions. You're finished.

  • Anothernative

    @Frank &Sue,Time for you "nice" lefties to get out of the way and let the adults take over so the kid's can get a good education and thus get a good job. See? It's ignorance like yours that allows these huge companies too continue to take jobs over seas in their hunt for slave labor and not be called on the carpet for it. You two are so blinded by the rhetoric that's being spread out here, that you are either afraid or just unwilling to question the lies. I strongly suggest that you read your history and find out why trade unions came about in the first place and go from there. don't be afraid to open your mind, you've allowed these people to use your passion for children, too cover up the real issues, teachers are but a small portion of trade unions but you've allowed that one issue to cloud your thinking towards all the families that are envolved. Trade unions are just that, working class families. Don't get it twisted.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Many AFSCME folks around the city still proudly hang the "Bye' Fenty posters in their office.s

  • http://www.wtulocal6.net Nathan A. Saunders, President of Washington Teachers’ Union

    September 7, 2011

    Dear Editor

    This letter is in response to the article State of the Unions (Alan Suderman, State of the Unions, Washington City Paper, September 2, 2011, Loose Lips, Pg 9). While Alan Suderman reported his perspective on Mayor Gray's relationship with the District's public-sector unions, he downplayed my efforts as president of the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) to speak out on behalf of our hard-working teachers.

    Suderman’s statement that, “I have remained relatively quiet since taking over,” couldn’t be further from the truth. At the onset of my presidency, I made it known that WTU would continue to challenge the unfair aspects of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system. We have done just that. When Mayor Gray took office, WTU organized an Education Transition Summit, during which close to 400 members shared their perspectives on IMPACT with his Education Transition Team. In addition, WTU successfully challenged the IMPACT exception policy limited only to new teachers. Because of our efforts, DCPS now allows IMPACT exceptions for all teachers irrespective of years of experience. Most recently, DCPS made another fundamental change to IMPACT, giving teachers who received "highly effective" ratings for the past two years and who earn an average of 3.5 on their first two evaluations this fall the option to waive the three remaining observations. Just last week, WTU filed four mass grievances on behalf of those teachers terminated as a result of a low IMPACT score demanding justice and renumeration. Clearly, these are examples of my refusal to remain silent, while working to ensure that my members are no longer subjected to the unfair aspects of IMPACT.

    With regards to the nomination of Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor, WTU refused to be silenced. I not only served on the Mayor’s Chancellor Selection Team Panel, I was the only member on this panel to provide a written report to the Mayor detailing my concerns with his selection process. Additionally, when the DC City Council Chairman created a process not allowing public testimony to be heard on this important issue, WTU members, at my direction, demanded and won public testimony.

    While I understand that Suderman wanted to reemphasize his point, let the record accurately show I have been anything but quiet in a role that I take very seriously – that of President of the WTU.


    Nathan A. Saunders, President, Washington Teachers’ Union

  • Edjook8tr

    You are so right City Paper...Saunders has been quiet!!! He hasn't done a thing since being in office except enjoy the large paycheck and play movies for his cronies! He said that IMPACT has been changed??? HA HA HA! Only for 1% (or less) of the teachers in the district!! How is that a victory??? He is a waste and so is Mayor Gray! Get them both out! We want RHEE back!