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Unions will have right to arbitrate

After a week of intense negotiations, the Baltimore County Council unanimously approved granting binding arbitration for police and firefighters last night, but the final version of the bill omits or modifies provisions the labor organizations had identified as key to a meaningful system for negotiations.

Leaders of the county's branches of the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Fire Fighters said, however, they are pleased that after years of efforts, they succeeded in gaining the right to have an arbitrator determine fair compensation and terms of employment for public safety workers.

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"It's been a long time coming," said Cole B. Weston, president of FOP Lodge 4. "Our members deserve to have a statute that defines the terms of the negotiating process."

The unions had sought an amendment to the bill that would have allowed an arbitrator to consider the county's reserve funds, not just annual tax revenues. The unions also wanted the arbitrator to consider the salaries of the public safety workers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where pay scales are higher, in deciding what is fair for Baltimore County.

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After a week of lobbying by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. against some of the union's proposals, County Council members chose to prohibit the arbitrator from considering the reserve funds. They voted to allow the arbitrator to look at salaries in Montgomery and Prince George's, provided the cost of living in those jurisdictions also is considered.

Council members also adopted compromise versions of amendments the administration backed to change the schedule for arbitration and to eliminate the possibility that the same arbitrator would participate in mediation and binding arbitration sessions. Smith and some councilmen had worried that having the same person act as mediator and arbitrator would be a conflict of interest.

Binding arbitration allows either labor or management to declare an impasse after a certain point in negotiations and to send the disputed contract provisions to an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator conducts hearings and issues a ruling, which the county executive is required to accept.

In contrast to the binding arbitration system approved by the Anne Arundel County Council earlier this year, Baltimore County's new law allows the council to alter the terms of the arbitrator's ruling as part of the annual budget process.

In that way, Baltimore County's system follows those in Montgomery and Prince George's, where binding arbitration has been in effect for years. The councils there have rarely exercised their authority to change an arbitrator's decision.

In November, voters approved a referendum by an 83 percent to 17 percent margin that authorizes the council to adopt a binding arbitration resolution. Smith and some council members have opposed binding arbitration in the past, saying it strips elected officials of the power to determine how public money is spent, but in the face of such strong public support, none opposed its passage last night.

"The voters overwhelmingly supported binding arbitration, and the administration worked together with the council and the unions to implement the public's will," said Smith spokesman Damian O'Doherty.


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