Will private firms take County jobs? Council hears both sides in crucial labor debate

May 21, 1992|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff Writer

Do county workers have a right to keep their jobs forever? Or should government be able to fire them if private firms can do their work more cheaply?

Union leaders and the Neall administration asked the County Council yesterday to resolve the question -- perhaps the most crucial labor issue ever to face Anne Arundel County government.

"It's a question of fundamental fairness" to workers who have always been promised job security, said Joel A. Smith, attorney for two large locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

It's a question of money, countered Michael Milanowski, the county's director of labor relations. Contract language now limiting the county's ability to privatize "unduly precludes Anne Arundel County from considering ways to save money," he said.

Negotiations between the county and Local 582, representing 859 blue-collar workers, and Local 2563, with 370 clerical and technical employees, are deadlocked.

After hearing nearly four hours of testimony, council members -- who must make a written decision before striking a budget on May 29 -- were keeping their opinions about the privatization issue to themselves.

They were also silent about the other major disagreement between the county and the AFSCME units: whether employees should get a one-time, 1 percent salary bonus in fiscal 1993 as repayment for the wage concessions they were asked to take last year.

Though locals 582 and 2563 originally asked for a 1.5 percent increase in base pay, an independent arbitrator recommended the 1 percent bonus.

Smith said the county has plenty of money in its proposed $634 million budget to finance the bonus. He pointed specifically to a $10 million property tax windfall the county expects to receive from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s new Brandon Shores power plant, money Neall has earmarked for his top priority, a rainy-day fund.

The cost of the bonus would be "insignificant to the financial well-being of the county," Smith said. "On the other hand, it is significant to the well-being of the people who earn their living by working for the county."

It would cost $397,000 to give the bonus to AFSCME members. But the contracts of the other four county unions include "parity" clauses guaranteeing their members the same increase as any other labor group, Milanowski said.

To give all county unions a 1 percent bonus would cost $1.44 million, he said. Granting the increase to all county workers -- public school and community college employees, plus mid-level managers who do not belong to unions -- would cost upward of $4 million, he said.

The county already is spending nearly $700,000 to fund merit and longevity increases for the two AFSCME locals alone, Milanowski said. "A 1 percent across-the-board increase is not appropriate given the circumstances we face in fiscal 1993," he said.

More important than the bonus issue, county and labor leaders agree, is privatization, a concept that could change the definition of the county work force.

County Executive Robert R. Neall wants to remove contract language that protects AFSCME workers from being replaced by private contractors. For the last 20 years or so, the contracts have allowed privatization only as a supplement to the regular work force.

"The clause must come out," Milanowski said. "Unions consider this type of provision to be an absolutely ironclad guarantee of a job forever," precluding the county from taking advantage of cost-saving privatization opportunities.

Union members say they should not have to surrender their job security.

"What gives anybody the right, after [workers] have been promised job security for a long period of time, to say 'I'm sorry, I've changed my mind'?" Smith asked.

"Politically, we feel that if some administrator wants to get rid of us and bring in his friends who are contractors, he [could] do that," said Marvin Redding, president of Local 582.

Union leaders agree that some jobs, like grass cutting and snow removal, can be done more cheaply by contractors. The reverse is also true, Redding said, yet no one listens when union workers say they can save the county money.

Besides the privatization and bonus issue, the council also will decide whether Local 2563 workers should have the absolute right to six weeks of unpaid leave for family emergencies.

Milanowski said the the county wants authority to approve any emergency leave to prevent abuse.

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