Loose Lips

There Is Glower in a Union

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D.C. AFL-CIO boss Joslyn Williams didn’t just lend his union’s endorsement to Vince Gray’s campaign for mayor—he lent his face. In a 2010 YouTube video with the “Gray for Mayor” logo in the corner, Williams expounded on the worker’s paradise that awaited under a Gray administration.

There was hope, Williams said, that “four years under a Vince Gray administration will create a community where working families can work, live, and play.”

Williams worked for Gray offline, too. After voting unanimously to endorse Gray, his Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions ran an independent campaign against then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, and some of its 150,000 D.C. area members volunteered for Gray. “We take some credit for [Gray’s] victory,” Williams tells LL.

Three years later, Williams gives speeches at rallies where audience members wave pictures of the mayor and chant “No Gray area.” His go-to speech, a litany of Gray’s betrayals of labor, centers on candidate questionnaires Gray filled out in 2006 and 2010 that Williams says now show the mayor broke his promises. Williams’ bill of grievances is long, but the message is short: Labor was tricked.

Gray’s once-close relationship with labor has become strained because of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, known everywhere outside of the D.C. Council secretary’s office as “the Walmart bill.” The bill, which would have required large nonunionized retailers to pay $12.50 an hour (or less, with benefits), passed the Council with eight votes in July. Gray vetoed the bill last week, despite campaign-trail statements that he supported raising wages at Walmart.

In a letter explaining the veto, Gray said it would kill jobs. The specific jobs Gray may have had an eye on were those at two stores in Ward 7, Gray’s home ward, including at the long-stagnant Skyland development; Walmart said it would cancel plans to build those stores if the bill became law. On Tuesday, Council chairman failed to override Gray’s veto by two votes. But while the bill is dead, the bad blood between Gray and labor remains.

Gray’s spoiled relationship with labor is about more than hurt feelings, though. It’s a clue to the question looming over District politics: whether Gray, 70 years old and under federal investigation, will try to hang on to the top spot next year. The mayor’s relentless march of ribbon-cuttings at new schools and playgrounds points to a second term.
His veto, though, suggests that the mayor may be headed for the exit. Gray’s other big edge in the 2010 race—the shadow campaign allegedly funded by Jeff Thompson—won’t be a factor, either. If Gray doesn’t even have labor backing him anymore, what’s left?

Labor certainly was on Gray’s side in the last race. That may have less to do with Gray’s solidarity bona fides, though, and more to do with the fact that Fenty’s mayoralty makes Gray look like Mother Jones.

“Fenty was so bad, and Vince Gray said a lot of the right things,” says Carl Goldman, the executive director of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 26. Goldman, who was involved in the Metropolitan Washington Council’s 2010 endorsement process, says Gray was an easy choice when compared to his competition.

That made union support for Gray as much about pushing the scourge of the teachers’ union out of the Wilson Building as putting Gray in the job. Gray’s 2010 primary victory party, a previous LL noted, featured AFSCME flyers with “BYE!” printed under Fenty’s photo—but no mention of the man who would replace him.

Winning that kind of support won’t be so easy in 2014. The AFL-CIO’s Williams estimates that, with his living-wage veto, Gray would struggle to get the required two-thirds endorsement of the membership. “It would be difficult as things stand now,” he says.

One thing working in Gray’s favor is that no other candidate is an obvious choice for labor. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, both mayoral hopefuls, voted against the living wage bill. So did At-Large Councilmember David Catania, another potential mayoral candidate.

As a result, they’ve been competing to introduce their own citywide minimum-wage bills to make good with labor. Wells, Bowser, and Catania each introduced legislation on wages at Tuesday’s Council session, but their bills are unlikely to make unions forget that they stood in the way of an override of Gray’s veto. Bowser’s bill only creates a commission to study raising the minimum wage. Wells’ wage—$10.25 an hour—is a paltry increase when compared to the $12.50 the LRAA would have mandated. Catania’s bill, at $10.50, is only a quarter better. Outside Tuesday’s Council meeting about the LRAA, protesters held up signs with Bowser’s, Wells’, and Catania’s faces, urging them to override.

One mayoral candidate wasn’t on the signs: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who, incredibly, has become a leading candidate for labor. Evans, long the favorite councilmember of the D.C. business community, was the lone major mayoral candidate who voted for the LRAA. He’s already snagged the endorsement of one of the area’s less prominent unions, the Maryland/D.C. State Council of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Bowser suspects that Evans’ motivations are less than pure, telling LL: “He’s doing mental, political gymnastics on that thing.” In a statement responding to Bowser’s comment, Evans says the living wage bill was consistent with his record of “creating good paying jobs for District residents.”

Still, the uncertainty thrown over the race by Gray’s potential run could be keeping out more labor-friendly candidates, according to Williams. “They’re keeping their powder dry,” he says of the unions.

Gray, talking to LL at yet another ribbon-cutting, denies that his relationship with labor has soured. A day after vetoing the living wage bill, he says he hasn’t been contacted by anyone opposed to the veto.

But asked whether his brush-off of labor means his mayoral campaign is off, Gray is less tranquil. “I would say that the unions need to evaluate what I have done with the unions over the past,” says Gray. “Nobody who’s a leader is going to evaluate a relationship over the basis of one incident or one episode.”

Just in case the union leaders do, though, Gray has been making sure they have lots of incidents to choose from. He’s promised to push his own bill to raise the minimum wage, although exactly how high he would like to see it he hasn’t revealed.

But his most drastic attempt to woo labor came last week, when, seemingly apropos of nothing, he summoned union members and the District press corps to Nationals Park. City administrator Allen Lew, negotiating with the owners of D.C. United and construction unions, had reached a “Project Labor Agreement” for the construction of a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point. The PLA, similar to the one that was used to construct Nationals Park, is a cushy one for the District’s unions: It gives their members priority for the largest contracts involved in the stadium construction.

The timing seemed suspicious, since the stadium deal itself is months away from Council approval. The city doesn’t even have agreements to obtain all of the land the stadium will be built on yet. Gray said he was just announcing it because it was finished. Two days later, he vetoed the LRAA.

If Gray is hoping to win back the unions, though, it doesn’t seem to be working. AFSCME’s Goldman, at least, isn’t impressed. “I’ll have to think long and hard before I’d consider endorsing him again,” he says.
The way things are going, he might not get the chance. CP

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6925.

Update, 2:30 p.m.: After press time, LL talked to a D.C. union leader who still supports the mayor.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Comments

  1. #1

    Perhaps Joss Williams lent his face to Gray's campaign because Gray lent his support for a living wage (which in places like D.C. and Montgomery County--where the living wage is significantly higher at $13.95--at the same time. But just as Gray's support for a living wage was on loan, so was the union's endorsement. If Gray thinks the Large Retailer living wage will kill jobs, he ain't gonna support a living wage for all, now is he? So no more love from people who have a hunger for social justice, which extends waaay beyond unions, you benighted journalists!

  2. #2

    Sent too soon. Let's try that again:
    Perhaps Joss Williams lent his face to Gray's campaign because during his campaign, Gray lent his support for a living wage (which in places like D.C. and Montgomery County--where the living wage is significantly higher at $13.95--has a very specific meaning) until he had to make good on his support. But just as Gray's support for a living wage was withdrawn, so was the union's endorsement on loan. If Gray thinks the Large Retailer living wage will kill jobs, he ain't gonna support a living wage for all, now is he? So no more love from people who have a hunger for social justice, which extends waaay beyond unions, you benighted journalists!

    (Has the City Paper considered upgrading its software to enable people to edit or delete their own posts?)

  3. #3

    Gray is done!

    He has turned his back on all the people that have supported him.

    At this point, if he goes to jail, who cares.

    Gray is self-serving bureaucrat that won in 2010 because we hated the other guy, period.
    And Gray has lived down to the expectations that were set before his term. He is Mr. Status Quo until an "explosion"... ie tax lien sales, now he is "stunned" by the story.

    Wake up "old man" there is a city to run or at least be in "touch" with....SMH!

    Nothing worse than an OLD FOOL!!

    PS- Who keeps saying that Catania is going to run for mayor? Where is that non-sense coming from....LOL! That is the only person Gray can beat!

  4. #4

    Gray is done!

    He has turned his back on all the people that have supported him.

    At this point, if he goes to jail, who cares.

    Gray is self-serving bureaucrat that won in 2010 because we hated the other guy, period.
    And Gray has lived down to the expectations that were set before his term. He is Mr. Status Quo until an "explosion"... ie tax lien sales, now he is "stunned" by the story.

    Wake up "old man" there is a city to run or at least be in "touch" with....SMH!

    Nothing worse than an OLD FOOL!!

    PS- Who keeps saying that Catania is going to run for mayor? Where is that non-sense coming from....LOL! That is the only person Gray can beat!

  5. #5

    Yawn. Just more union bullshit. The only way the unions are relevant anymore is among those of low intelligence and government workers. Stop this idiocy of forcing people to pay union dues and watch them dry up and blow away.

    But only in DC and other large cities with plenty of liberal bleeding hearts and low intelligence people do they continue to buy into union propaganda.

  6. #6

    Unions are middle man for labor who make their living buying govt officials through serving their campaigns. What Thompson did is not even 10% of what Unions do at every election. Everyone knows it but no one investigates them. No Press, No FBI. Even though Council Member Brown declared his resignation from Union Offices. No enquiring minds? Though there are not enough DC Residents in Union, never the less Union buys perks through politicians..How about next Mayoral Candidate declares that there will be no deduction of union dues from pay for anyone other than DC Resident employees. let us see what happens in DC!!

  7. #7

    Gray did the right thing, whether it was politically expedient or not. It is more important for the District to have more jobs and more retail (especially in areas where ther is virtually NO retail) than to merely protect union jobs at Safeway and Giant, which is what this so called living wage bill was all about. I have more respect for Gray for doing what was right for the District instead of what may have been better for him as a politician. I wish more politicians would do what was right instead of what was best for their political futures.

  8. #8

    Gray needs to go.
    He began his term breaking federal laws and he has been under FBI and grand jury investigation ever since.
    It's not a matter of what he's done while under constant threat of indictment as mayor. It's a matter of our city is perceived by residents and, frankly, stakeholders world-wide.
    Sad. But there it is.

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