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Emotions run high in all-business lawsuit State employees angry at attempt to block collective bargaining


State fiscal clerk grade 3 Cindi Foard and Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Champe C. McCulloch had not met before last week, when Foard and some other union protesters went to Annapolis to present him with an early Christmas gift -- a box of coal.

The gift fit for a Grinch typified the hard feelings swirling around the lawsuit filed by three business groups last week to overturn Gov. Parris N. Glendening's executive order granting collective bargaining rights to state workers such as Foard.

McCulloch sees the governor's order as a blow to business sensibilities. In the ultracompetitive interstate battle for jobs, he reasons, Maryland's governor is sending a bad signal to corporate executives.

Down in the trenches of state government, signals count for little with Foard. She's more concerned about the blows she has suffered in her 10 years as a state fiscal clerk -- furloughs and pay freezes, a longer workweek and layoffs.

The collective bargaining order, she says, is a long overdue step toward restoring employees' "dignity."

"I don't think the public is aware of how we are treated," says Foard, 38, a mother of three who helps manage the vehicle fleet for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "You used to be proud to say you worked for the state. Now you don't know."

Despite the protests of Foard and others, McCulloch and the heads of two other prominent business groups filed suit in Anne Arundel County court last week seeking to negate Glendening's order.

The suit asserts that Glendening exceeded his authority in issuing the directive; only the General Assembly can authorize collective bargaining for state workers, it claims.

The seeds for the lawsuit were sown nearly three years ago when Glendening, as a candidate for governor in a hotly contested Democratic primary, promised to fight for collective bargaining for state workers -- something they had sought for decades.

The promise had two parts, although only one was widely remembered. Glendening said he would try to enact legislation in the General Assembly. If that failed, he said, he would issue an executive order granting bargaining rights.

Unions rewarded Glendening with endorsements and mailed reminders of his stance to their members.

His first year in office, he backed off this and other controversial issues to take time to adapt to Annapolis.

This year, Glendening formally proposed a collective bargaining bill. Such measures have come and gone in Annapolis for at least a quarter-century, but never had a governor made collective bargaining part of his legislative agenda.

Union supporters such as Foard gathered in Annapolis daily to press legislators. But in the face of strong opposition from the business community and some key legislators, the collective bargaining bill died in committee.

"We thought the battle had been won," says Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a plaintiff in the suit.

But after the session, Glendening aides began meeting quietly with union leaders to craft an executive order. As it surfaced in May, the order was a major victory for labor.

The governor's directive gave some 40,000 state workers the right to vote for union representation, and unions could bargain with the administration over salaries, benefits and work conditions.

But there were significant limitations. The order provided no mechanism for settling bargaining impasses, nor did it allow strikes. And, most importantly, the agreements would not be binding on the governor or legislature.

Even so, many state workers were thrilled.

"He's about the first governor that did something for state employees, and our hat is off to him," says Mike Hamilton, a heavy equipment mechanic with 18 years of experience with the state.

The reaction from lawmakers was generally critical. Some called for a special session to undo the order, an idea dismissed by the Assembly's presiding officers.

The leaders of the state's three main business groups, meanwhile, pushed ahead with plans for a legal challenge.

In a series of meetings, the governor and his aides tried to talk the groups out of the suit, arguing that it would only hurt the very thing the business community values most -- Maryland's image as a good place to do business. After all, how good can things be if the state's business leaders are suing the governor over a policy issue?

"Make no mistake about it. This has not been an easy decision for the business community," Hutchinson says.

Finally the three groups -- the Chamber, the GBC and the Greater Washington Board of Trade -- decided to sue.

In its legal arguments, the suit asserts that the governor overstepped his authority. But outside of court, the business leaders say the motivation for the legal action is the simple proposition that collective bargaining is bad for the Maryland economy. It will inevitably lead to higher salaries and benefit costs for the state, which can translate into higher taxes, a sure turnoff to business.

"It hinders our efforts to improve the state's business climate, and indeed the governor's efforts to improve the state's business climate," McCulloch says.

That argument doesn't play well among some state workers, who have received only two raises in the past six years. They point to their counterparts in county government, who have union representation and whose paychecks are often significantly higher.

"We have people up here working two jobs just trying to make ends meet," says Hamilton, the state mechanic in Harford County. "That's not right."

But employees say they're just as concerned about workplace issues, such as the policy that allows the state to transfer workers up to 50 miles, regardless of seniority.

"I don't think salaries are only the issue," says Foard. "I think if they give state employees a little of their dignity back, it would help compensate for some of this stuff."

To many state employees, the business lawsuit simply reflects an anti-union bias.

On Friday one union, Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, fired back with an announcement that it was withdrawing deposits it had with banks affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, and urged its members to do the same.

"I really have a problem with the Chamber of Commerce," says Foard. "They want to control us, keeping us down in salaries and not having a voice in our workplaces. They're very greedy."

At least one of the three named plaintiffs in the lawsuit said such talk is painful.

"I hate the thought that the motivation in any way got misunderstood by public employees individually," Hutchinson said after the three business leaders announced the filing of their lawsuit.

"There isn't anybody in this room who doesn't realize the problems employees in the public -- and private -- sectors have holding a family together."

The son of a steel worker, Hutchinson negotiated dozens of contracts with employee unions during his eight years as Baltimore County executive in the 1970s and 1980s. The system had its problems, he said, but he learned to live with it.

Now, he has a different perspective.

"We're in the job of creating jobs," Hutchinson says. Perception is important in the cultivation of business, he says, and a new move to expand collective bargaining in Maryland will hurt.

"I wish in my 20 years in government, I had a better understanding of that," Hutchinson says.

Collective bargaining for public employees is nothing new, of course. Many local employees in Maryland enjoy such rights, and some 25 states have collective bargaining for their employees.

Business leaders counter that most of those states have had collective bargaining for years. In the past six years, only three have significantly expanded bargaining rights for their employees -- Indiana, New Mexico and Maryland.

"Most state collective bargaining laws were enacted years ago, well before the war between the states kicked in over economic development," McCulloch says. "Having it granted in today's climate is not helpful."

Glendening, who calls such arguments "silly," is said by an aide to be taking the suit personally. He has, after all, worked to appease business this year, backing regulatory reform and proposing a controversial 10 percent cut in the state income tax rate.

"Reasonable people can have legitimate disagreements. I respect that," Glendening said. "But this lawsuit detracts from our ability to address the real interests of business in this state."

The suit was filed less than a month before the General Assembly reconvenes for its annual 90-day session. Assembly leaders are still smarting over the executive order, which upset what had amounted to an uneasy legislative equilibrium on union issues.

State government was working fine without collective bargaining for its workers, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "At the same time, we were not going to make Maryland a right-to-work state or repeal the prevailing wage law," the Prince George's County Democrat said, referring to two anti-union measures.

For now, he said, the General Assembly will likely lay off the issue "until the court suit is resolved."

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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