Md. workers group fights for its life; Bargaining measure poses threat to future of MCEA; AFSCME stands to benefit; Glendening bill seen as payback for backing of Sauerbrey


The Maryland Classified Employees Association, the oldest organization representing state workers, boasts a strong record of achievement for public employees: sick leave in the 1930s, pensions in the '40s, a credit union in the '50s, longevity pay in the '60s and retirement after 25 years in the '70s.

But two years after it was rejected by state employees in elections to choose a collective bargaining agent, the 64-year-old labor organization is fighting to survive the 1999 General Assembly session.

Legislators from both parties say Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recently introduced collective-bargaining bill is a dagger aimed at MCEA, which endorsed Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in last fall's election.

The union that stands to benefit is MCEA's competitor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which spent freely and mobilized volunteers to re-elect the governor.

The effort to pass the legislation is shaping up as one of the hardest-fought battles of the session. Asked whether the governor was trying to put MCEA out of business, the group's president, Henry Williams, said, "No question about it."

Legislators say the most threatening provision for MCEA is a proposed fee that all state workers covered by labor contracts could be required to pay to the unions that represent them. This so-called agency fee is a long-sought goal of AFSCME, which stands to be its biggest beneficiary.

If the fee provision passes, MCEA members would have to pay dues to two organizations -- MCEA and their bargaining agent, AFSCME -- and few believe that their loyalty would extend that far.

"For MCEA, this is a battle for their survival," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Rawlings reported that his calls are running strongly against the fee, with opposition not just from MCEA members but from the majority of state employees who belong to neither labor group.

Of 120,000 state employees, about 10,000 belong to each group, with AFSCME holding a slight edge in membership. About 5,000 other state employees are in other unions.

The agency fee is included in legislation that would write into law Glendening's 1996 executive order establishing collective bargaining for state employees.

Other provisions of the bill would strengthen AFSCME's position as exclusive bargaining agent, which has been fortified by the administration's decision to restrict MCEA representatives' access to state work sites.

The two organizations have long been bitter rivals.

"The philosophies are completely different," said Williams, an employee of the state university system.

Loyal MCEA members, such as Ruth Ogle, are proud that the organization is locally run and not part of a large international union such as AFSCME. "Our members have a say in everything," said Ogle, a correctional case management specialist who is leading MCEA's campaign against the Glendening bill.

Ogle said many state workers resent AFSCME's effort to take money from their paychecks without their consent. "If AFSCME's such a good organization, let them go out and recruit people to be members," she said.

AFSCME members say MCEA is an ineffectual group whose members didn't turn out to vote for it.

Doubts begin

Royce Treadaway, a longtime MCEA chapter president at the Maryland Port Administration, said she began to have doubts about the older group after counting ballots in the collective-bargaining elections in spring 1997.

She said the experience of seeing her union receiving one vote to every two or three for AFSCME prompted her to do a serious comparison of the two groups.

That prompted her to defect to AFSCME and take about 90 co-workers with her, Treadaway said. "It was very democratic, which I'd been told all along it wasn't," she said.

Now president of the AFSCME local at the port administration, Treadaway said she appreciates the international resources that AFSCME -- with 1.3 million members -- can mobilize when she has a problem. She said she gets more respect from other port unions now that she's with an AFL-CIO affiliate.

"I didn't feel like when we were MCEA we were recognized as a union," Treadaway said.

MCEA has been wrestling with such an identity problem for decades. While some members, such as Ogle, call MCEA a union, others bristle at the term and insist on calling it an association.

AFSCME leaders say MCEA's internal ambivalence is a key reason it has been fighting a losing battle for most of this decade.

In 1992, MCEA counted 19,357 dues-paying members on the state payroll, compared with 8,240 for AFSCME. But since then, MCEA's membership has eroded at an alarming rate, while AFSCME has made gains. Early this year, AFSCME pulled ahead of MCEA for the first time -- with 10,105 members in state government to MCEA's 9,846.

The figures show that MCEA's drop was especially precipitous in the wake of the 1996-1997 representation elections held under Glendening's 1996 executive order instituting collective bargaining. MCEA lost all eight elections it contested, most by margins of 2-to-1 or 3-to-1.

MCEA caught unprepared

Williams, elected in the wake of the losses, conceded that MCEA failed to do an effective job of countering AFSCME's campaign.

But Williams said MCEA was unprepared for the Glendening administration's effort at enforcing a strict interpretation of the role of "exclusive" bargaining agent.

Last summer, the administration sent directives to its departments telling managers to deny MCEA access to union bulletin boards, orientations and health fairs. Over MCEA's protests, it gave staff members for the bargaining agents exclusive access to work sites not open to the public.

The administration's stand helped persuade MCEA to endorse Sauerbrey, who voiced sympathy for the organization, despite the Republican's coolness toward unions in general.

State Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester said the decision was fair. "Being an exclusive rep means being an exclusive rep," he said. If MCEA had won, Puddester said, it would have been the first to insist that AFSCME be excluded.

MCEA's problems have been compounded by a decline in its influence in the Democratic-controlled legislature -- which did not appreciate its flirtation with Sauerbrey.

On most Monday nights during the legislative session, the lobbies and halls of the State House complex are crowded with AFSCME members, with few MCEA representatives in sight.

Rawlings, a critic of the governor's collective bargaining bills, said AFSCME's Sue Esty is the most effective lobbyist in Annapolis for state employee concerns.

"Part of the problem is MCEA's ineptitude," Rawlings said.

Glendening's agency fee proposal -- widely seen as payment of a political debt rather than a serious initiative -- seems to be generating little support. Leading legislators might doubt that MCEA can hang on much longer, but they seem disinclined to speed its demise.

"MCEA is on its deathbed with a respirator," Rawlings said. "Whether there is a successful cure will come about to the extent that their will to live and survive is strong."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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