Unions join forces to thwart Neall County workers cite lack of raises


Facing a third year with no pay raise and what they view as deteriorating relations with management, unions representing most of Anne Arundel County's workers are planning a concerted drive they hope will further their causes while blunting the political ambitions of County Executive Robert R. Neall.

Mr. Neall, a former state delegate, is weighing a run for governor, but he also might seek a second term as county executive. He has held fund-raisers but has not announced his political plans.

"We would like to thwart them, whatever they are," said Jim Pickens, president of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1693, which represents school cafeteria workers and custodians.

County employees are getting no across-the-board pay raises for the third straight year. Union leaders blame Mr. Neall for fostering what they say is anti-worker sentiment manifested in such ways as privatizing government, not consulting employees about new assignments resulting from government reorganization and ignoring their suggestions and needs.

"We get such a poor response out of the current administration," said Scott Harmon, vice president of AFSCME Local 582, which, with about 900 members, is the largest county government union.

Most of the unions have made tentative commitments to sign a mutual support pact when the coalition meets July 12. That would put the strength of more than 10,000 workers behind the effort, union leaders said.

Firefighters, the only employee group to support Mr. Neall when he ran for county executive, reportedly have been invited to join but have made no commitment. That union's president could not be reached for comment.

The impetus for the coalition came last month, less than a day after school employees and the Board of Education tangled over a 3 percent raise. Mr. Neall opposed giving school and government workers raises until January; the County Council favored raises for both and approved raises for government workers effective July 1. The school board sided with Mr. Neall.

Union leaders say coalition activities will center on mutual support, sharing and disseminating information, job protection, informational pickets, raising morale and drumming up support for their positions.

They hope to be a government watchdog and perhaps even propose legislation to the County Council.

Mr. Neall has had an uneasy relationship with many public workers. Union support -- especially from the teachers union, which never forgave Mr. Neall, then a delegate, for spearheading changes in the state pension system that increased employee contributions -- helped Democrat Tom McMillen defeat Mr. Neall in the 1986 congressional race. But he won other races without their support.

Mr. Harmon said the coalition hopes its numbers will remind the executive that most county employees live and vote in the county -- and have friends and relatives who do the same.

"For every one worker, you basically control four voters," Mr. Harmon said. "That's a significant number he can't ignore."

Union representatives say that shortly after he took office, Mr. Neall told union leaders they would receive nothing during his administration. He has kept his word, they say.

"They play games. That's why we are going to get very tough with a coalition," said Dee Zepp, president of Secretaries and Assistants of Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Neall does not recall telling the union leaders they would get nothing, though he does remember telling them that financial times were tight, said his spokeswoman, Louise Hayman.

The executive is not angry at the unions, but rather is shrinking the government to match available revenue, Ms. Hayman said. He has had to cope with a loss of more than $65 million in state money, a stubborn recession and a tax cap -- and has done so without any a loss of jobs for any union members, she said.

"He does not want a work environment where the employees have to worry about whether they'll have employment in a month or two," Ms. Hayman said, noting that midyear raises are possible if the county can afford it.

This is not the first time county unions have tried to form a coalition. The previous efforts coalesced around specific political agendas and issues, but the cooperation ended with an election or with the resolution of the issue.

This time is different because "the climate has changed, the mood has changed," said Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, which represents about 3,900 teachers.

This coalition will balance issues affecting individual unions with those common to all unions, such as salaries, Mr. Pickens said.

Individual issues are already cropping up.

The summer flex-time program for school secretaries, instituted about seven years ago, has been canceled. School spokeswoman Jane Doyle said not having schools adequately staffed created problems with deliveries and maintenance last summer, but Ms. Zepp said she first heard of past problems last month and then no specifics were offered.

Ms. Zepp has asked school secretaries to work to rule. Last summer, secretaries put in more than 1,200 hours of uncompensated overtime to prepare the county's 120 schools for fall opening, she said, and if they don't do the same this this summer, some things might not get done.

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