Several state colleges - where officials have pledged impartiality in union elections this year - have hired outside law firms known for fighting unions to help them respond to collective-bargaining campaigns under way.
The hirings occur as university system employees around the state are voting, by wide margins, for union representation under a new state law that allows for collective bargaining by nonfaculty workers at public campuses.
University officials say they have hired the outside firms, rather than relying on their own legal and human resources departments, because in-house officials are unfamiliar with collective-bargaining law. The universities can't use the state attorney general's office because it only represents campuses in litigation, officials said.
"We need to have someone with experience in the process, and we're not experienced," said University of Maryland, College Park President C.D. Mote Jr., at a recent regents committee meeting. "The campus needs to be educated on the whole process."
But state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, questioned yesterday the universities' explanation. If the campuses need advice in contract negotiations, he said, why have they retained firms during the union election process, months before negotiations will begin?
"I'm less comfortable with them hiring people before elections. My experience is, when you bring firms in then, they're showing you how to beat the unions," Pinsky said. "I'd prefer they not do it, and just follow the lead of what employees want - that's the idea behind collective bargaining."
Among the campuses paying for outside counsel are UMCP, which has retained the Washington firm Krupin O'Brien, and Towson University. Towson spokeswoman Susanna Craine wouldn't identify the firm but said it specializes in representing management in labor disputes.
College Park spokesman George Cathcart said the university is paying Krupin O'Brien $250 an hour out of Mote's discretionary fund but wasn't sure how much the firm has been paid to date. Craine said Towson, which she said usually relies on in-house counsel, has had to allocate extra money for the outside firm but declined to say how much.
More than a dozen chapters with more than 3,000 workers have been formed, most of them service employees and most represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In all, about 10,000 state college workers are eligible to join unions under the new law.
The law firm hirings occur as the university system is facing a budget crunch and administrators are warning students and faculty of potential cutbacks.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate budget committee, said she understood why the campuses are hiring outside counsel, but that they shouldn't expect the state to offer extra funds to pay for it. "They're going to have to eat it. It's not going to come out of our dime," she said.
Union officials said they suspect the law firms have played a role in policies strictly limiting organizers' access at some campuses. Union officials said it's been especially difficult to reach workers at Towson, where no elections have been held. The College Park campus, where service workers have voted to unionize, has been somewhat easier to deal with, they say.
Cathcart said College Park selected Krupin O'Brien for its experience representing universities. Jay Krupin, one of its partners, said last year that his firm plans to challenge several pro-labor precedents set during the Clinton administration, including one letting unions organize via office e-mail.
Several campuses, including Salisbury University, say they will rely on their own human relations staff and a lawyer recently hired by the university system to advise campuses in negotiations.
That approach makes the most sense, said Gary Pagels, a national representative with the American Federation of Teachers, which is organizing professional employees at state campuses.
"Collective bargaining is an art that can be learned, and there's no reason why the very capable human resources people at these campuses can't get additional training and bargain successfully," he said. "More often than not the lawyers just clog up the process."