Prison guards' problems prompt union's creation

April 29, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Prison guards and other correctional workers make up less than one-tenth of the state work force, yet they file a third of the state employee personnel appeals each year. The disciplinary suspension rate is high, as is the risk of inmate lawsuits.

Overcrowded prisons and understaffing combine to create dangerous working conditions, corrections officers say, while they remain wary that any use of force will bring swift disciplinary action against them.

"The solution is always to suspend the officer and let him file a grievance," said Rodney Parker, who has worked six years at the Maryland Penitentiary. "The administration is not listening to us."

"We go to talk with them about problems of officer safety and understaffing, and they want to talk about putting up new flagpoles," grouses Kevin Lansdowne, another Maryland Penitentiary officer, who went nearly six months without pay for a suspension which was ultimately overturned.

These are some of the frustrations among penal employees that sowed the seeds for the formation of the Maryland Correctional Union (MCU) last week, the newest labor group competing to represent the 65,000 people who work for the state.

Unlike the three unions now representing all types of state employees, MCU will restrict its membership recruiting to the 6,000 workers in the state corrections division.

That focus will be the source of the new union's organizing appeal as well as of bargaining power with state authorities, predicts Rick Silva, field services director of MCU.

"When there's one union recognized as representing these workers, the administration and legislators will have to listen," said Mr. Silva, who worked for a dozen years with corrections workers as a representative of the rival Maryland Classified Employees Association.

"And with better lines of communication, we hope to work out manyof the job-related problems before they escalate to formal grievances."

"We've seen a deterioration of the rights of correctional employees," he said. "They have as little rights as an inmate."

The goals of correctional workers have been thwarted in the past by the lack of a single voice and by unions that have not effectively represented their unique needs, Mr. Silva said.

Prison guards had a chance to gain important security and staffing changes in 1984, with their "sick-out" action following the fatal stabbing of Officer Herman Toulson at the Maryland Penitentiary, Mr. Silva said.

But while one state employee union was pressing the job action, another was publicly declaring that it was over, he said, "and that effectively broke the pressure on authorities to do anything."

Collective bargaining is MCU's top priority, but only for state correctional employees, Mr. Silva emphasized. The MCU has no plans to join the other unions in fighting for a blanket collective bargaining law. Maryland does not allow union contracts with its employees.

The state is more likely to grant contract bargaining to correctional officers than to the entire state work force because their specific needs can be directly addressed, he contended.

"Nothing short of a written contract can truly protect our salaries, benefits and working conditions," said Chester Wilton, a lieutenant at the City Jail and a charter MCU member.

MCU hopes to build a core of members from some 850 City Jail employees like Mr. Wilton who will become state employees July 1. Some jail employees are now represented by the City Union of Baltimore, which like MCU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Wilton was active in organizing CUB four years ago, when it won a fight to take over Baltimore city employee units represented by the now-defunct independent Classified Municipal Employees Association. City Jail workers have benefited from collective bargaining, he said, and "they are not happy about losing that right. We want that back." Under a contract, salaries and working conditions cannot be changed by administrative whim, only by negotiation, Mr. Wilton noted.

But the new union will face competition for members even at the jail. Some City Jail employees are already represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has members who work for both state and local governments.

AFSCME claims more than 1,600 members in the corrections division, MCEA about 2,500. The Teamsters Union, which entered the state employee field more than four years ago, has a few hundred members in corrections.

Officials of those unions say they are aware of the same problems that MCU is focusing on and of the difficulties in resolving those grievances. They also acknowledge that cases involving corrections facilities take much union effort.

And while they do not welcome another rival for potential members, they believe that the emergence of more unions may ultimately have a desired effect.

"This should push the state closer to a collective bargaining agreement," if only to resolve the task of dealing with so many labor organizations, said Joseph Cook, field services director for MCEA.

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