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City unions seek ground rules for Ďmanaged competitioní

(Published May 17, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

By the end of the summer, private companies could be bidding against D.C. workers for contracts to repair city vehicles, deliver government mail and clean city recreation buildings.

Mayor Anthony A. Williamsí plans to open up city services to "managed competition" are proceeding apace, even though the administration has not reached agreement with public sector unions on the ground rules for the competition. The consensus budget passed May 11 by D.C. City Council included $3.5 million to set up an "office of competitive services" as part of the program.

"The mayor keeps talking about this fast track, but weíre not really on the same page," said George Johnson of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who is among several union leaders currently negotiating with the mayor.

Others say the mayor is moving too fast.

"Itís unrealistic to think this can be done by the end of the summer," said David Schlein, national vice president of District 14 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Youíve got to put the training in place for the (city) employees. If they are not prepared, you donít really have a competition."

"People are scared," he continued, describing the mood of city workers. "Training has traditionally been poor. They donít know whatís really facing them. They donít know how to act like a private company."

But the mayorís administration promises "a level playing field."

"This is a partnership together with labor," said Max Brown, legal counsel to the mayor. "The goal is to improve services with respect for front-line employees."

Although no ground rules for the competition have been set, Brown said a final agreement could include provisions to protect city workers, such as designating some service areas "off limits" for competition or giving city employees priority to be hired if a private company wins a contract.

Union leaders counter that "re-engineering," a process by which front-line employees help management streamline and improve services within an agency, could accomplish the same cost savings as managed competition, without threatening peopleís jobs.

But in an interview May 13, Mayor Williams was firm that competition is a reality.

"Weíve been re-engineering, shmeering for years and itís not enough," he said. "And I donít agree with just doing a cost analysis either. Itís the competition that determines the cost."

"This is a difficult thing to do," he continued, pointing out that he is a former union member and his parents were government employees.

"The point is not to reduce wages and not to reduce union jobs," the mayor said. "The unions may not be enthusiastic about it, but we want their general support."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator