Firefighters Can't Have It Both Ways

June 07, 1994

The Anne Arundel County firefighters union should not be surprised that County Executive Robert R. Neall is trying to take away their pay raises because they are fighting changes in their health benefits.

Mr. Neall made it clear when he offered the raises that they were conditional upon acceptance of a new health care package designed to encourage workers to use HMOs and save taxpayers millions. The firefighters say he's being mean, but, in fact, he is merely keeping his word. Nothing is wrong with that.

By the same token, employees who believe the new plan violates two provisions of their contract are justified in filing a grievance. Mr. Neall may be upset that grievance procedures could thwart his intention to put the health plan in place by July 1, but that is not the union's problem. If the firefighters see a way to fight the plan through grievances -- last week, a federal arbitrator sided with the workers on one of the issues -- they have every right to do so.

But they and members of five other unions looking at the firefighters as a test case should not expect to fight the new plan and get a pay raise -- not when Mr. Neall stipulated from the beginning that the two were tied. Indeed, the executive would be unfair to the members of the huge blue-collar workers union, which did accept his terms, if he allows those who have not agreed to reap the same benefit.

Besides, standing up to the unions on this issue is the right thing for an elected official to do. The soaring cost of traditional health plans -- health-care costs are outstripping county revenues by 15 percent annually -- is too much for taxpayers to bear.

Interestingly, only a small portion of employees in the six unions that object to the health care changes stand to lose under the new plan; 72 percent already belong to HMOs or preferred provider networks, which offer a wider choice of doctors.

Nonetheless, the firefighters can fight Mr. Neall on this issue if they wish. Based on the arbitrator's decision, it looks as though they may have some legitimate contractual arguments.

But the firefighters should not confuse their right to contest the health plan with their right to that pay raise. They knew they had to accept one to get the other.

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