City Unions Face New Realities

February 28, 1991

For decades nothing seemed safer than a government job. No longer. Governments, just like private businesses, must respond to economic difficulties by cutting costs and personnel.

A case in point is Baltimore City, where municipal unions have until today to agree to defer their negotiated salary raises. If unions do not agree, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, facing a $54.1 million shortfall, may have to lay off as many as 2,400 of the city government's 28,100 employees.

"These are tough times for anyone to be in the position of searching for work," the mayor warned in personal letters to municipal employees. "I for one worry about the availability of jobs in the private sector, should it become necessary to release large numbers of employees."

The gut reaction of the unions was to say "no." Yet in a significant break, the 5,300-member City Union of Baltimore voted to defer a 6 percent raise. "If it comes down to giving up the raise or keeping my job, I'd rather keep my job," explained Pamela D. Hart, a $17,000-a-year security guard with two years of seniority, three children and a mortgage.

Other unions may be more militant. Groups representing police officers, teachers and school administrators are in a bind because they would forgo salary increases while in the middle of contract talks. The firefighters also face a hard choice: they won their salary increase through arbitration.

How these unions respond to Mr. Schmoke's proposal will show their astuteness amid changing conditions. Baltimore's municipal unions -- if they are to survive -- must focus more on protecting essential jobs than on winning salary increases as city government undergoes a systematic downsizing. There is no question such a contraction is coming: Among the nation's top 50 cities, only San Francisco has more municipal employees per 1,000 residents than Baltimore.

A month ago, the city's Finance Department prepared a strategic plan to improve Baltimore City's long-term financial health. The plan foresaw disruptions in the status quo, smaller budgets, a "vast transformation" of the bureaucracy. We urge Mayor Schmoke to submit this plan to the Board of Estimates and the City Council for approval so that city employees are not the only ones forced to make a commitment to downsizing.

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