Unions fare poorly in public sector Government workers in Md. lack legal and political power

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pummeled by cost-cutting politicians and a wave of anti-government sentiment, unions representing rank-and-file state, county and city workers are facing one of their darkest hours.

But Maryland's public employee unions lack the political and legal muscle to fight back -- members can't strike, their leaders feud among themselves, and they rarely lavish campaign contributions that grab political attention.

"It is quite chic to beat up on government employees right now," said Donna Edwards, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 92, which represents 8,450 state workers.

A history of lost opportunity and internal rivalry has prompted some powerful state politicians to call "organized labor" an oxymoron when applied to public employees.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was building the New Deal when Maryland's workers first sought the right to bargain collectively for pay and benefits.

They failed to gain that right in 1937 -- and have virtually every year since.

Maryland public employee unions representing more than 100,000 state, county and local government workers are not making any progress toward that goal today.

Legislation that would have granted Maryland's 30,171 organized state employees -- excluding teachers -- at least limited bargaining rights died in this year's General Assembly as unions clashed over competing bills.

Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to save $54 million in the state budget by cutting 800 jobs, partly through layoffs.

Over labor opposition, legislation was passed this year that links raises to merit, introducing state employees to the kinds of performance incentives used in the private sector.

State employees are not the only targets. Maryland counties are trying to shave payrolls, which account for more than 70 percent of public spending, by changing personnel rules and taking tough stands in union talks.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, employee salary and benefits make up 75 percent of the budget.

"We have to look at the nature of the times," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.

The weakness of Maryland's public employee unions is easily explained: State law does not permit public workers to strike or to resolve disputes through binding arbitration, which allows an independent panel to set pay and benefits.

That combination sets Maryland's public employees apart from their peers in other industrial states. Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, for example, all grant public employees one form of final recourse.

Fed by immigration and industrialization, Baltimore's early private sector unions resembled New York's, Boston's and Chicago's in power and mission. Their influence led to one of the nation's first workers' compensation laws in 1912, which later was a model for national Social Security legislation.

"Labor has always been more of a success than a failure in Maryland," said George H. Callcott, a retired University of Maryland history professor.

In recent years, public sector unions have been the only segment of organized labor with a growing membership, fueled by workers seeking protection from the budget cuts.

But that hasn't translated into influence, at least in Maryland.

Howard and Baltimore counties have offered employees incentives to retire early. Anne Arundel officials have told 3,500 employees that they will receive no raises for the third consecutive year. In Prince George's, County Executive Wayne K. Curry is threatening workers with layoffs if they don't sacrifice raises this year.

Without legal recourse, union leaders have advised some members to accept the county offers, especially in Baltimore County, where 250 workers took early retirement.

Apart from scattered protests, no coordinated union political offensive has emerged.

'We have no power'

Only one AFSCME unit, representing Prince George's County employees, has a registered political action committee in Maryland. It has given candidates $4,765 since 1990.

"We have no power," said LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of Anne Arundel's International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1563.

Diluting their numbers -- labor's prime political asset -- unions worked at cross-purposes on the legislation most important to them this year.

In the General Assembly, the two largest unions, representing 32 percent of Maryland's 94,000 state employees, pushed different collective bargaining bills.

One measure, supported by the Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA), would have established an independent labor relations board and binding arbitration.

Mr. Glendening's bill, weaker for labor but supported by AFSCME Council 92, would have created a state board and nonbinding arbitration.

The rivalry hurt labor's cause, legislators say.

"It's been going on for decades," Mr. Miller said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce was a primary force in the defeat of the bills. "The world is changing," said Robert R. Neall, former Anne Arundel County executive and a chamber lobbyist. "Public sector unions are caught in changing times."

Studies have found that state employees with collective bargaining rights consistently receive bigger annual raises than workers in 13 states without them.

If Maryland state workers had had bargaining rights in 1980, they would be making 29 percent more money today, using those 13 states as a guide, according to a state Department of Fiscal Services study.

A 1 percent pay raise for Maryland state workers would cost $28 million.

Employees at only one Maryland agency, the Mass Transit Administration have collective bargaining rights and binding arbitration.

In the past six years, MTA employees have received raises 8 percent greater than those of Maryland workers not covered by agreements. Four of the state's 23 counties have limited collective bargaining for some employees.

"We were hoping Maryland was going to have a comprehensive bargaining law [this year], and of course they weren't even going after that," said Laura Ginsburg of the AFL-CIO's public employee division.

Thirty-two percent of Maryland state employees are union members, less than half the rate in New York and Pennsylvania. AFSCME Council 92, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, represents 9 percent of state employees, the national union's lowest unionization rate in any state except Nevada and Alabama.

"Maryland has always been a mixed state for us," Ms. Ginsburg said.

If public sector unions are to rebound, perhaps they should follow the lead of Maryland's teachers.

The Maryland State Teachers Association, which has 45,000 members, won collective bargaining rights in the late 1960s. It has grown in stature ever since.

In 1994, the union gave candidates $113,825 -- four times more than MCEA has given in four years -- from its PAC. That placed it behind only trial lawyers, Realtors and a medical PAC among Maryland's biggest contributors.

Lobbying pays off

More important, political analysts say, the teachers union has organized its membership from top to bottom. The union's opposition was a key to the defeat of a bill in the legislature that would have allowed Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary to appoint the school board. Such far-reaching legislation as "maintenance of effort" funding guarantees also emerged, in large part, through association lobbying.

"They are much bigger players," Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said of the teachers union. "They have a perspective that goes far beyond teaching and schools."

Nevertheless, AFSCME membership has grown 15 percent in Maryland since 1990. The growth comes from new local bargaining units at the county level, especially in Prince George's and Dorchester.

In May, AFSCME lobbied successfully to return 261 previously privatized custodial jobs in the Baltimore school system to the public sector. Three months later, the union aided in the successful fight against an attempt by the Howard County school board to privatize the custodial staff.

Through a series of news conferences and lobbying, AFSCME Council 92 helped save 500 state Department of Human Resources jobs from elimination this year. And last month, a Baltimore County AFSCME local won holiday pay for custodians working the Easter holiday to make up for snow days.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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