D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray threw his support this week behind pay hikes for the city's approximately 30,000 workers.
But to the unions representing police officers and firefighters, who have been without contracts since 2007, Gray's vow was little more than a political promise, a made-for-TV moment that won't translate to bigger paydays.
"The mayor's rhetoric is overshadowed by the actions of his administration," said Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the police union. "There is a reason police and firefighters have not had raises in seven years -- namely this mayor's administration has refused to negotiate those increases."
Ed Smith, who leads the firefighters union, was wary of Gray's promise, but he said he had expected city officials would ultimately support raises.
"We'll wait and see," Smith said. "You can't keep denying it forever."
Gray's proposal, announced Tuesday during his State of the District Address, was long on vision and praise but short on specifics.
"They get the snow off our streets, keep us safe, respond to emergencies, pick up the trash, get our children safely to school and [perform] so many other jobs that contribute immeasurably to the quality of our lives," Gray said of city workers.
But as he called for "raises and reaching new work agreements updated to meet the demands of a 21st-century government and a 21st-century workforce," Gray offered no details.
And on Wednesday, Gray bristled at the criticisms from the unions, especially the condemnation from Baumann.
"What am I supposed to say to that?" Gray said. "We're not only raising the pay, but we're adding officers. I think we're doing a lot to demonstrate our commitment to public safety."
Last week, after killing proposals for 100 new police officers in December, the D.C. Council allowed a Gray-backed plan to hire 50 extra cops to move ahead.
The long-running contract disputes have intensified in recent months: On Monday, the police union and the city jointly asked for a mediator to intervene.
The firefighters union and the city took the same step -- formally declaring an impasse -- in November, but Smith said the parties had not yet begun mediation.
Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who chairs the D.C. Council's public safety committee, said he thought the unions and the city alike were responsible for the stalemates.
"Both sides are to blame," he said. "It's very frustrating."
And he said he was exploring whether lawmakers could take action to spur progress.
"I realize there is a process, but if I can find a way from the legislative side to get this done, that's what I'll do," Wells said.