Anne Arundel County's largest public employee union has agreed in principle to a new contract, a sign that tensions between the Republican administration and labor have eased from last month's pitched protests.
The one-year agreement -- which contains no raises but does include a guarantee that no county services will be privatized this year -- must be approved by the 841 members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 582. A vote is expected next month.
The accord, reached after 80 hours of talks, could serve as a model for discussions between the administration and the county's six other bargaining units. County officials have reached impasses with four of those unions, including the police unit that marched last month on the Arundel Center to protest the administration's pay policies.
"We have the opportunity to get other unions to take a look at this," said county attorney Phillip F. Scheibe, who is in charge of the negotiations for the administration. "The picture is not as bleak as first thought."
Under the agreement, the administration would grant a long-sought union request: creation of an appointed board of management and labor representatives to administer the county employees' $522 million pension fund.
Most important were the guarantees not to privatize county services, which has been a major source of concern as executives around the state look to shrink the size and cost of government.
"That's our No. 1 issue and our No. 1 success," said Jim Bestpitch, president of the AFSCME local that represents blue-collar employees. "Our goal was to keep everybody working, and it appears we have done that."
Terms of the agreement also would allow county officials to create a second pension system for new AFSCME employees with less generous retirement benefits.
The county pays toward retirement benefits 2 percent of an employee's salary for every year of service. Employees who work 20 years receive an annual pension equal to 40 percent of their salary. Under the agreement, new employees would receive 1 percent of their salary for every year of service, but would not have to contribute to the pension fund, as is now required.
The accord also would establish a 40-hour week for the union's employees, most of whom already work those hours. But that has alarmed other bargaining groups, including Anne Arundel's second AFSCME unit representing 376 clerical employees, who believe the agreement may serve as a precedent for their negotiations.
"There will be no yielding on that point," Mr. Scheibe said. "Everyone, whether they are in a bargaining unit or not, will work a 40-hour work week."
Helen Simpson, president of AFSCME Local 2563, said 90 percent of her members are women, most of whom took 35-hour-a-week jobs to make it easier for them to balance responsibilities at home and at work.
"In many situations, the women are the major caretakers for their families -- having dinner ready, getting the kids from school, planning for Scout meetings," Ms. Simpson said. "It really does affect us, more than anyone."
County Executive John G. Gary has made personnel reform a top priority. He has told Anne Arundel's 3,500 employees they will not receive raises for the third consecutive year because of budget constraints, while he has also moved to change work and salary regulations.
Last night at a special County Council meeting, Ms. Simpson spoke against a bill that includes provisions establishing a 40-hour workweek and eliminating longevity raises in favor of merit bonuses for the county's 731 nonunion employees. Mr. Gary has pitched the measure as a move toward making public employment more like private-sector employment. The council is expected to vote on the measure Monday evening.
County officials will propose similar measures to labor unions after a new budget is approved in May.
Meanwhile, the agreement between the administration and the blue-collar AFSCME unit is being written by county attorneys. Mr. Bestpitch said he expects no difficulty working out the details with the principal points in place.
"These have been the longest negotiations in the history of our local," he said. "It has been very intense, very emotional and very demanding."
Pub Date: 3/29/96