Unions fare poorly in public sector Government workers in Md. lack legal and political power

April 28, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Pummeled by cost-cutting politicians and a wave of anti-government sentiment, unions representing rank-and-file state, county and city workers are facing one of their darkest hours.

But Maryland's public employee unions lack the political and legal muscle to fight back -- members can't strike, their leaders feud among themselves, and they rarely lavish campaign contributions that grab political attention.

"It is quite chic to beat up on government employees right now," said Donna Edwards, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 92, which represents 8,450 state workers.

A history of lost opportunity and internal rivalry has prompted some powerful state politicians to call "organized labor" an oxymoron when applied to public employees.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was building the New Deal when Maryland's workers first sought the right to bargain collectively for pay and benefits.

They failed to gain that right in 1937 -- and have virtually every year since.

Maryland public employee unions representing more than 100,000 state, county and local government workers are not making any progress toward that goal today.

Legislation that would have granted Maryland's 30,171 organized state employees -- excluding teachers -- at least limited bargaining rights died in this year's General Assembly as unions clashed over competing bills.

Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to save $54 million in the state budget by cutting 800 jobs, partly through layoffs.

Over labor opposition, legislation was passed this year that links raises to merit, introducing state employees to the kinds of performance incentives used in the private sector.

State employees are not the only targets. Maryland counties are trying to shave payrolls, which account for more than 70 percent of public spending, by changing personnel rules and taking tough stands in union talks.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, employee salary and benefits make up 75 percent of the budget.

"We have to look at the nature of the times," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.

The weakness of Maryland's public employee unions is easily explained: State law does not permit public workers to strike or to resolve disputes through binding arbitration, which allows an independent panel to set pay and benefits.

That combination sets Maryland's public employees apart from their peers in other industrial states. Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, for example, all grant public employees one form of final recourse.

Fed by immigration and industrialization, Baltimore's early private sector unions resembled New York's, Boston's and Chicago's in power and mission. Their influence led to one of the nation's first workers' compensation laws in 1912, which later was a model for national Social Security legislation.

"Labor has always been more of a success than a failure in Maryland," said George H. Callcott, a retired University of Maryland history professor.

In recent years, public sector unions have been the only segment of organized labor with a growing membership, fueled by workers seeking protection from the budget cuts.

But that hasn't translated into influence, at least in Maryland.

Howard and Baltimore counties have offered employees incentives to retire early. Anne Arundel officials have told 3,500 employees that they will receive no raises for the third consecutive year. In Prince George's, County Executive Wayne K. Curry is threatening workers with layoffs if they don't sacrifice raises this year.

Without legal recourse, union leaders have advised some members to accept the county offers, especially in Baltimore County, where 250 workers took early retirement.

Apart from scattered protests, no coordinated union political offensive has emerged.

'We have no power'

Only one AFSCME unit, representing Prince George's County employees, has a registered political action committee in Maryland. It has given candidates $4,765 since 1990.

"We have no power," said LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of Anne Arundel's International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1563.

Diluting their numbers -- labor's prime political asset -- unions worked at cross-purposes on the legislation most important to them this year.

In the General Assembly, the two largest unions, representing 32 percent of Maryland's 94,000 state employees, pushed different collective bargaining bills.

One measure, supported by the Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA), would have established an independent labor relations board and binding arbitration.

Mr. Glendening's bill, weaker for labor but supported by AFSCME Council 92, would have created a state board and nonbinding arbitration.

The rivalry hurt labor's cause, legislators say.

"It's been going on for decades," Mr. Miller said.

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