The state's largest employees union wants permission to collect fees from workers who don't pay dues and who might belong to other unions, a plan that has the backing of pro-labor Gov. Martin O'Malley and awaits legislative approval.
Critics characterize the proposal as a money grab that would create a labor monopoly.
But leaders with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees argued yesterday that the group is unfairly subsidizing employees who don't pay dues but who benefit from its work negotiating contracts with the state and providing representation for grievances.
Under an O'Malley-backed bill discussed in Annapolis yesterday, the union would be able to negotiate a service fee as part of the contract that would be voted on by all employees subject to the agreement. All employees vote on contracts whether they are union members or not.
"At some point we can't be a charity," said Sue Esty, assistant director for AFSCME Maryland.
"We have to be able to do our job, and we have to have the resources to do it well."
The fees could more than double the union's annual income. Currently, the union collects about $3.8 million in dues from about 10,000 members a year. The legislation would apply to more than 30,000 state employees, most of whom are represented by AFSCME and would have to pay the service fee if they don't pay dues. Other bargaining groups also represent some state workers and could collect a fee.
The proposal, which failed to make it out of a General Assembly committee two years ago, is part of O'Malley's legislative agenda this year. Maryland Secretary of State John P. McDonough and O'Malley's chief legislative aide, Joseph C. Bryce, testified in favor of the plan yesterday before the House Appropriations Committee.
A number of labor-backed bills have garnered the administration's backing. Another O'Malley-backed bill would crack down on employers misclassifying workers as "independent contractors" to avoid paying taxes, unemployment insurance and workers' compensation premiums. And another would require more state construction contractors to pay a so-called prevailing wage.
Twenty-three other states either require employees to pay a service fee or permit them to be required through collective bargaining, according to an analysis of the bill by nonpartisan legislative analysts.
AFSCME and the administration argued that because collective bargaining units are required to represent both members and nonmembers in contract negotiations and individual grievances, it is only fair that all employees pay.
But one union, the Maryland Classified Employees Association, opposed the bill. Critics argued that the legislation would force payroll deductions on employees who choose not to be part of the unions. It also could diminish the union's membership, as some might drop out so they wouldn't have to pay both dues and the fee.
"It's going to be goodbye to every other union, and we're going to end up with a monopoly," said Del. Steve Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
But AFSCME officials said their union was elected to be the exclusive collective bargaining unit for most employees. They said the increased revenue would allow the union to better represent employees and to do more education and training outreach.
"This is about democracy, bottom line," said AFSCME Maryland director Patrick Moran.
"If you don't like democracy, then I guess you don't like the country we live in."