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An unpopular governor fights for an unpopular plan


HAVRE DE GRACE -- Maryland, by all the standard guidelines of the last quarter-century, is a traditional Democratic state, a proudly organized-labor state, a state always suspicious and often defiant of the aspirations of its commercial community.

So there must be broad support out there for Governor Glendening's single-handed effort to give collective-bargaining authority to state employees, right? Especially now that the commercial community is challenging that effort in court.

Yet can there be anyone out there who seriously doubts that if Mr. Glendening's executive order were put to referendum next week, the voters would ebulliently deep-six it? Not only is Mr. Glendening the least-popular incumbent governor in the nation, if recent polls are to be believed, but the prestige of the public-sector unions at whose behest he is acting in this matter is even lower.

Personalities aside, the state's perspective on economic matters has changed profoundly. But the mild-mannered professor in the governor's office apparently hasn't noticed, which is why his union-backed initiative seems so quaint, and the various responses to it so interesting.

It isn't as though the change in political philosophy has been subtle. Mr. Glendening's wafer-thin victory in 1994, over a little-known candidate with no statewide base, was one loud announcement that the old dogmas were cracking. An equally emphatic one was the heavily-Democratic legislature's refusal to let the governor have collective bargaining in the normal way, by statute.

Not many years ago, if executives of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Washington Board of Trade had filed suit against a Democratic Maryland governor in a labor-related matter, as they just have against Mr. Glendening, most of the Democratic establishment would have rallied around the plaintiff. It would have seemed a question of principle, not to allow the corporate types to throw their organizational weight around.

As recently as the administration of William Donald Schaefer, such a challenge would have been unthinkable. In his prime, Mr. Schaefer ate tycoons for breakfast. And at all times, even when his political capital was nearly gone, he prided himself on being able to negotiate effectively with them in private.

Just as important, Mr. Schaefer was too much his own man ever to allow a special-interest group to tell him when to jump, or how high. If the special interests knew what was good for them, which they usually did, they rallied behind his agenda. They never dreamed of telling him what to do.

The outcome of the lawsuit against Mr. Glendening probably won't turn on whether collective bargaining for 40,000 state employees is a good idea. Whether it's a good idea or not should be of no concern to the courts. The narrow but critical question to be litigated is whether or not the governor has the constitutional authority to end-run the General Assembly, and by extension the public, on this issue.

But the suit does offer a good opportunity to revisit some of the many reasons why collective bargaining in the state work force, though proposed in the legislature as long ago as the 1930s, has never seemed a particularly good idea.

To most people not intimately involved with labor issues, the granting of collective bargaining rights to a work force implies the right to strike. And the prospect of striking state employees -- whose benefits are already the envy of their private-sector counterparts -- tends to make taxpayers apoplectic.

The governor's backers will rush to note that the executive order prohibits strikes or work stoppages, as does current law. But it expressly permits "concerted activities," a term left conveniently vague. And as the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services concluded, that may well allow "work slow-downs, systematic sick-outs or other activities which interrupt the performance of employment duties."

Opposition to collective bargaining does not reflect opposition to state employees, as the unions insist. With the inevitable few sour exceptions, the state employees most of us encounter do their jobs efficiently and cheerfully, and deserve our thanks. But our thanks need not extend to making Maryland, for 1960s ideological reasons, resemble 1990s France.

If Professor Glendening has really thought this one through, he must be secretly hoping that the courts will pull the plug on his brave new idea. Then he can take credit for trying and go on to something else in the hope that the incident will be forgotten. But if his executive order stands, its importance will be magnified -- to an already exasperated electorate, and, later on, to historians examining his single term in office.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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