Shrewd Moves in Arundel

February 26, 1991

After three months of talks, the Anne Arundel County School board and its 4,000 teachers have hit an impasse over a raft of issues led by -- what else? -- money. The teachers, coming off three years of 9 percent salary hikes, want an increase this year, too. Partly as a negotiating ploy, partly in recognition of the county's steadily worsening revenue picture, the union has pared its request to 7 percent from 10 percent. Yet this comes at a time when the county is estimating a 2 percent revenue decline in the next fiscal year.

What is most striking is the school board's insistence that there won't be any raises next year. Rather than dicker about pay hikes that won't be funded by the county executive and county council, the board has opted for arbitration. It is also in the process of cutting School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton's proposed $359.2 million budget.

This is part of new County Executive Robert R. Neall's pattern of sensible adjustments to austerity in Anne Arundel. Mr. Neall's well-known reputation as a tough financial taskmaster has gained him the grudging support of key union officials. He has skillfully persuaded four of the county's six employee unions to extend their contracts until July 1992. With that request comes the not-so-veiled threat that if forced to negotiate this year, the Neall administration would arrive at the bargaining table armed to the teeth with concession demands. Also made abundantly clear was the likelihood of layoffs if county employees demanded pay raises.

At work is the belief on the part of these unions that their interests are better served by delaying talks rather than risking givebacks on merit raises, sick leave, health care benefits, paid holidays and the length of the work week.

All localities in the region are wrestling with competing imperatives, but the response in Anne Arundel has been refreshingly reasonable. Instead of subjecting members to the concessions-or-layoffs ultimatum facing workers in Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, Anne Arundel unions are counting on a better climate a year hence. Most county unions have demonstrated an awareness of economic realities and a shrewd assessment of their limited options. If the gamble pays off, they could lose nothing more than a cost of living raise. The two county unions holding out for higher pay could lose much more.

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