Unions statewide vow to use ruling as legal leverage to gain back millions

September 25, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Teachers and other local government employees vowed yesterday to use a federal court ruling as leverage to get back millions of dollars they lost in pay cuts and unpaid furlough days because of the budget crisis.

U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young ruled last week that Baltimore illegally furloughed thousands of teachers and police officers because the city had a contractual obligation to pay their negotiated salaries. He ordered the city to reimburse the workers at a cost estimated at $3.3 million.

Unpaid furloughs or pay cuts also have been ordered in at least 10 counties to help absorb cuts in state aid. Union leaders, buoyed by Judge Young's ruling, say they will now go to court to fight for reimbursements for those workers, too.

"Early on we perceived the city unions to have the best shot. Now we can mount a costly statewide challenge for the counties with greater assurance of being successful," said Michael Butera, executive director of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

Glen Middleton, executive director of Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said union officials will meet in Baltimore next week to coordinate follow-up lawsuits in every local jurisdiction where furloughs or pay cuts were ordered.

"We're going to press it everywhere," said Mr. Middleton, whose union represents 22,000 local government employees in 16 counties and four municipalities.

The unions' plans for a legal challenge -- which if successful, could cost local governments millions of dollars -- come as Baltimore and the counties face the threatened loss of $150 million in state aid as part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's latest deficit reduction plan.

Some government lawyers, however, suggested yesterday that the ruling could be reversed on appeal, saying there have been many cases in which the authority of government to alter contracts due to budgetary necessity has been upheld.

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden wouldn't say if he is worried by Judge Young's decision, but he's expected to buy time by appealing any judgments against the county. Restoring lost pay for county workers, who were furloughed for five days, could cost the county as much as $12.5 million.

An arbitrator already has ruled that the furlough of Baltimore County police officers was an illegal breach of contract. That ruling will be appealed to circuit court, county officials have said.

David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said if such rulings are upheld on appeal, it could turn out to be "a hollow victory for labor" because government managers would be robbed of a "management option" and might be forced to lay off workers who otherwise would have been furloughed. "A worker could be repaid $1,500 for the furlough days, but could end up losing his job," he said.

Judson P. Garrett, attorney for Anne Arundel County, said county officials do not believe Judge Young's ruling would apply to them even if upheld. He said County Executive Robert R. Neall asked employee unions to choose between pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs, and they did.

"Our position would be that we did this with the consent of the unions," he said.

The state also cut spending by nearly $17 million by furloughing about 40,000 employees for one to five days, depending on their salaries. But Deputy Attorney General Ralph Tyler said he did not believe the ruling would apply to the state because there is no negotiated contract with employees.

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