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Business drawing 'line in the sand' No choice but to risk collective bargaining suit against governor


Maryland's fundamentally cautious business community risks casting a darker shadow over the state's marketplace if it sues Gov. Parris N. Glendening this week as predicted, but it feels that it has no choice.

Though some have called the governor's grant of collective-bargaining rights to state employees "limited" and even "illusory," the business community sees a governor undeterred in his pursuit of pro-union policies that it finds calamitous.

It has been a mantra of Maryland commerce that unions undermine the state's ability to keep the companies it has and to recruit new ones. And now, business executives feel, as competing states sell themselves as havens of "right to work," Maryland's governor is issuing new concessions to labor.

The dilemma? Allow that message to go unchallenged or sue and create an equally damaging picture: In Maryland, business has to sue the governor to get a fair deal.

"There are costs and benefits of the action," said Richard Clinch, program manager for the Maryland Business Research Partnership. "The suit in its own right sends a bad signal in some ways, but it also says business is serious about the issue."

Some say there was never a question of whether -- only questions of when to sue and how to pay for it. Legal and other fees could run into several hundred thousand dollars.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce were apparently the most determined to proceed, with the Greater Baltimore Committee worried that a lawsuit would damage the city's prospects of winning a good cash settlement in its aid to education suit against Glendening and the state.

When Glendening complied with business's demand for an income tax cut, some thought pressure for the suit might subside. Now it appears only revocation of the order would bring that relief.

"For us to do nothing would be more harmful than taking him to task and suffering some public relations losses," said a businessman with inside knowledge of the groups' thinking.

Glendening could profit politically as a friend of the working man, but is now faced with the potential of rending conflict with business at a time when he is preparing a package of economic development initiatives for the General Assembly.

"I would hope we can separate this issue from the pro-business )) agenda the governor has put forward," said James T. Brady, the secretary of economic and employment development. "The collective-bargaining issue need not be confused with what we're trying to do to create jobs that are absolutely urgent as we approach the 21st century."

At its most fundamental level, the proposed lawsuit bespeaks a business executive's visceral dislike of unions.

"Say the words collective bargaining," observed another source, and these guys immediately think of higher costs for them, more administrative hoops to jump through and broader economic development problems."

Also, the business community fears, the cost of government will rise as a result -- as much as $20 million a year according to one analysis -- putting upward pressure on taxes. Businesses already here would be hurt, and again those that are being recruited to locate here will shy away, according to this argument.

Feelings on the issue were "white hot" at one point, because business felt blindsided on an issue they thought they had defeated: Glendening issued his order just weeks after a similar proposal was rejected by the General Assembly. The suit is expected to assert that he exceeded his authority and violated the state constitution's separation of legislative and executive powers.

House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat, welcomed the suit strictly from a constitutional perspective.

"For me," he said, "the suit has nothing to do with the substance of collective bargaining. It has everything to do with our system of government. My interest stems purely from the separation of powers issue."

Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. opposed the order as an unwarranted incursion on their prerogatives.

The order allows state workers to elect a union to bargain for them and requires managers to discuss wages, hours and working conditions with them. But agreements they reached would not be binding on the governor or the legislature, and the order contains no provision to resolve disputes between labor and management.

The order also forbids state employees from striking.

A spokesman for one of the state employee unions urged businesses yesterday to produce evidence -- if there is any -- that unionization in state government inflates budgets or hinders business recruitment. That has not been the experience in states such as Ohio and Indiana, where economies are "popping," said Joe Lawrence, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

He wondered if the business community was using the labor issue to leverage something else it wants from Glendening. If not, he said, it is "simply acting with vehement prejudice against working people."

The judgment that Glendening's order would be weak in practice -- and was essentially a sop to the unions who have supported him politically -- was not shared by business or by AFSCME.

"It was carefully crafted, making sure it didn't impinge on legislative prerogatives," Lawrence said. "We'll work with the legislature to strengthen and expand it."

Which is what the business groups expected.

"We're in a real business malaise in this state," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County. Foreign firms, he said, won't move into a state unless it has a right-to-work law.

Business may not expect to achieve that goal, but the collective-bargaining matter is another thing.

"You're trying to make Maryland look like a pro-business state," said Clinch of the Maryland Business Research Partnership. "Businesses look at a governor's record, and when you have this type of issue, it sends a signal. And it's a pretty strong one at that.

"I guess this is a line in the sand."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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