Pressure mounted Monday on Mayor Vincent Gray to pay DC firefighters $36 million in back pay they contend the city owes them for overtime dating back to 2001.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO issued a resolution Monday afternoon supporting the firemen and called Gray’s attempt at withholding payment “anti-labor, absolutely inappropriate” and in direct contradiction of the city’s attempt to gain budget autonomy from Congress.
The battle over the $36 million is complex and longstanding, but it reached a new stage this month when Gray included in his budget a request that Congress resolve the back pay dispute. By asking Congress to step into a local matter, Gray runs the risk of coming off as hypocritical in current and future attempts to free the District from federal control.
The AFL-CIO’s statement increased the heat on Gray on two levels.
First, the Fire Fighters Local 36 and the larger AFL-CIO council don’t always get along. But the city is fighting other unions on back pay issues, so they share an enemy.
“It shows that labor is going to stay united on this issue,” says Ed Smith, the firefighters union president. “We expect the mayor to stand by the collective bargaining agreements.”
Second, it threatens Gray’s union support, now and if he considers running for a second term. Says Smith: “On one hand you have the mayor trying to paint a rosy picture of him and labor. But you have this going on behind the scenes.”
The battle over the $36 million goes back to the 1990s, when a federal financial control board oversaw city finances. To get a handle on spending, the control board attempted to nullify all negotiated overtime provisions. The firemen claimed the control board had no such power, and courts agreed. The city then asked Congress to give it the power, which it did, but only for one year. The congressional act expired in 2001, and the city neglected to renew it.
In 2007, the firefighters presented the city with the $36 million bill for accrued overtime, but the city refused to pay. It argued that the control board’s nullification was still in effect. The union appealed to the Public Employee Relations Board, which ruled for the firemen. The city appealed that decision to DC Superior Court, but a judge affirmed the PERB ruling in a second win for the union.
The city has appealed that decision, but its lawyers have little hope of winning. As a last resort, the city appealed to Congress to retroactively enforce the 2001 Appropriations Act that wiped out the union agreements on overtime.
On the legal front, Gray has twice been defeated. By going over the unions and the courts to Congress, he’s vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. And on the political side, he opens himself up to critics in the city council who will contend with him over labor support.
City officials were not available for comment, but they have told Washingtonian in the past that the DC budget is too tight to pay out the $36 million, and they feel certain they don’t owe the cash.
Neither side is giving in, but at this point, labor has the edge.
Update (4/22/13 at 5 PM): Read Mayor Gray’s response to Monday’s resolution from the AFL-CIO council.