If this week's union-related activity is any indication, morale among the Salt Lake firefighters and police officers is similar to that of soldiers marching on half-empty stomachs.

But most city officials are confident that despite low morale, Salt Lake's protectors will still faithfully watch over citizen's lives and property.And while the police local rejected its labor agreement with the city and the firefighter's union is threatening to sue this week, some members of the relatively complacent city employees union are wondering aloud what all the complaining is about.

Firefighters have been working for three weeks without a contract and are threatening to sue the city over an apprentice wage dispute. Police officers voted down a tentative work agreement with the city at a union meeting Tuesday.

Mayor Palmer DePaulis is attending the Democratic Convention in Atlanta, but his chief of staff, Mike Zuhl, said the mayor recognizes union unrest as a "loud and clear" message of frustration to which DePaulis must respond.

"It's clear that the administration needs to communicate more effectively with its employees," he said.

To that end, DePaulis will embark on a campaign to meet in the field with department heads and employees "to try to get a little bit closer with the way employees are feeling with their work," Zuhl said.

Meanwhile, Zuhl is confident that employees will continue doing their jobs without "shunning their responsibilities."

"I think that, by and large, all our employees are professionals and they are going to respond appropriately," he said.

City Council Chairman Tom Godfrey, a high school teacher, said union discontent is analogous to tough times in education. Teachers often sign unsatisfactory contracts, "but somehow they're there every day teaching."

"I would assume the same thing holds true for the fire department," he said.

Newly appointed police Chief Mike Chabries was unavailable Thursday at press time, but Maj. Ed Johnson echoed Zuhl, acknowledging frustration but saying "the people from the community really don't have to be seriously concerned."

However, Councilman W.M. "Willie" Stoler, a 34-year veteran of police ranks and administration, said low morale, a sign of a "serious credibility gap" between police and DePaulis, could generate trouble.

"For the new chief it creates some problems because he's got a group of discontented employees working with him," he said.

"Services will still be performed," Stoler said, "but there still is an undercurrent that festers . . . and when it explodes or over what it explodes, heaven only knows," he said.

While police settle down after a "blue flu" epidemic last month and firefighters prepare for a lawsuit against the city, members of the third city employee union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, wonder what the ruckus is over.

None of the three unions got pay raises in this year's budget, but the clerks and other workers who belong to AFSCME hardly sounded a peep, except for threats of unrest next year by the union's boss, Gordon Ottley.

Some AFSCME employees are complaining that they carry their fair share of the burden during poor fiscal times without "sick-outs" and lawsuits, prompting Zuhl to point out that the Salt Lake Police Association and the International Association of Firefighters Local 1645 are not the only unions taking it on the chin.