Boom times for bureaucrats

June 16, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

A NEW DAY is about to begin in Maryland government. Thanks to an executive order by Gov. Parris Glendening, this state's government work force soon could be heavily unionized. That is likely to prove costly for taxpayers.

The pros and cons of unionizing government workers can be argued endlessly. In many cases, it works out quite well and leads to a better labor-management relationship and more productivity.

But labor unions are, by their nature, resistant to change that affects workers. Privatization efforts, no matter how cost-effective and sensible, are bitterly opposed. Look at the way the Baltimore Teachers Union undermined the city's school experiment with Education Alternatives Inc.

Or look at Baltimore County's initial effort at ''gainsharing,'' in which workers' departments are rewarded for cost-saving suggestions. The county's jail-guards union is upset because the non-unionized kitchen staff found a way to save $5,110 a year by putting fewer onions and celery in entrees, and the jail guards won't share in the reward. Some guards threatened to sabotage the ''less onions and celery'' drive.

Unions also oppose merit pay, arguing that everyone should share equally. The notion of someone getting more money for working harder or better is anathema to those who preach solidarity. More and more, that posture clashes with marketplace realities, which stress individual achievement and rewards. Elected leaders now see this as a key missing component in government.

Pay for performance is a big part of Governor Glendening's recently enacted personnel-reform law. The aim is to provide cash incentives for top-performing workers. Unions fought hard to kill it. They failed to persuade lawmakers, who also rejected collective bargaining for state employees.

Mr. Glendening promised unions in 1994 to allow collective bargaining for state workers. So he implemented it by executive fiat, despite the legislature's clear opposition. How this will work alongside a pay-for-performance plan is a mystery. The two notions are in conflict But pay-for-performance won the governor kudos from business leaders, and his executive order won union cheers.

Creating a fait accompli

The governor also mandated rapid implementation to undercut efforts to undo his edict. By August, an overworked personnel department must announce how 75,000 state workers will be divided among nine bargaining units -- a job that would normally take a year. By November, elections will be held to select bargaining agents. When legislators re- assemble in January, collective bargaining will be a fait accompli.

Most likely, one powerful union allied with the governor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, will win most elections. Bargaining agents can negotiate ''wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.'' That means almost any change implemented by management -- no matter how trivial -- could require hours, days or weeks of haggling.

But taxpayers should worry most about wage and benefit packages. Even if he can't give unions big pay raises right away, Mr. Glendening can offer such enticements as shorter work weeks, more holidays and favorable work rules. That's the way it worked in Prince George's County under County Executive Glendening. He gave the unions lots of concessions. ''Parris wanted labor peace,'' said one respected county official. ''He didn't want a situation where the unions were actively upset with him.''

During the recession of the early 1990s, P.G. unions gained a no-layoff, no-furlough clause -- absolute job security -- instead of immediate pay hikes. But Mr. Glendening added a kicker -- deferred wage increases of roughly 10 percent. The contracts were structured so these higher wages didn't commence until after Mr. Glendening left office.

Thanks to his generosity, P.G. government now has the highest overall wage scales in the Maryland-Virginia region. Its unionized wages are 10 percent more than pay for non-unionized employees.

Will the same thing happen in Annapolis? Conservatives in the legislature may try to stop it, but they will have a difficult time. Maryland's governor has enormous powers, and Mr. Glendening has cleverly used those powers to buttress his political support with an important labor union.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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