Workers who opposed longer hours hear from Schaefer Harassment, union says

so sue, Lighthizer says

August 30, 1991|By Sandy Banisky

Back in July, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was extending the state workweek from 35 1/2 to 40 hours, and Mildred Womble and Connie Powell were speaking their minds. In an article in The Sun, the state employees objected to working longer hours for the same pay.

The governor, of course, noticed.

Both women, who work in the Maryland Department of Transportation, were summoned to meetings with their supervisors, where they were handed letters signed by Mr. Schaefer.

"I was personally distressed to read your comments in The Baltimore Sun. . . . ," the letters from the governor begin. They go on to urge that "you will approach this difficult time with a spirit of cooperation and teamwork."

"Harassment and intimidation," said William Bolander, executive director of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

At a news conference attended by Ms. Womble, Mr. Bolander said he was not troubled by the tone of the letters, which strike a patient note and contain no threats. But he said he was disturbed that they were delivered at the workplace by a manager, instead of to the workers' homes.

That, he said, gives the letters the weight of a warning. If Mr. Schaefer or his aides make other, similar moves, Mr. Bolander said, "we will sue him personally in federal court for violation of . . . civil and constitutional rights."

That apparently does not worry O. James Lighthizer, the state transportation secretary, who said he composed the letters for Mr. Schaefer's signature at the governor's request, after they read the employees' statements in the newspaper.

"Tell him to sue his brains out. Be my guest," Mr. Lighthizer said.

When sending the governor's letters to the offices, Mr. Lighthizer included his own message to the women's supervisors, asking them to "counsel [the workers] to consider the impact [their] public statements may have on her co-workers."

"Obviously an employee has the right to disagree with the governor," Mr. Lighthizer's letter said. "But injudicious statements such as those that appeared in the press only make the situation worse and diminish us all in the eyes of the public."

Yesterday, Mr. Lighthizer said he objected to the quotes because "it's very disconcerting to the average taxpayer, who's struggling through the recession . . . , to read about some state worker whining about working a few more hours. . . ."

"Now there's some union representative whining about some workers being asked not to whine," he added. He said the letters were the only two he had written on the issue.

Because the workers were talking about their jobs, "we sent it to their place of employment," he said. "If we had sent it to their

home, they would have been complaining we violated their families' rights."

But Ms. Womble said she would have far preferred to have received the letter at home.

Ms. Womble, a clerk at the Glen Burnie headquarters of the Motor Vehicle Administration, said she is worried about what may come next -- though she is a 20-year employee with no past personnel problems.

"I don't know what's going to happen down the road," she said. "October, they're talking about layoffs."

And then there's the unpredictable Schaefer style to consider.

"No one knows what's in the back of Governor Schaefer's mind," she said. "I don't know if he's going to show up at my house. . . . I don't know if he's going to show up at my job. I don't know what he's going to do."

Ms. Powell, in a telephone interview, said she was offended because the governor's letter alleges that "you chose to air your feelings with the press rather than sharing them with me by letter so I could have a chance to explain my thinking to you."

In fact, Ms. Powell, a State Highway Administration employee, said, she had written to the governor last spring, when he first discussed lengthening the workweek, to explain that the change would cost her more money for child care. She never received a reply. "Maybe one of his aides didn't give it to him," she said yesterday.

She said she is not sorry she shared her feelings with a newspaper reporter. "I have freedom of speech. That's the First Amendment of the United States."

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