State workers unions face a big test Groups are competing for votes, certification under new regulations

August 21, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

All summer long, union organizers have been vying for the hearts of state government employees across Maryland in a fight not unlike a political campaign.

Ever since Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed an executive order in May granting state workers a form of collective bargaining, competing unions have been trying to win over an estimated 40,000 employees -- who in a few months will vote on which organizations will represent them.

Unions have set up "war rooms" where strategy is plotted and their opponents' progress monitored. A radio ad campaign was undertaken. Phone banks were established. Mailings have been sent home. And leaflets have been dropped at job sites.

The fruits of those efforts will show up today, when the unions begin to present proof to the state that they are eligible to take part in those elections.

It is the first step in a long, complicated process that is sure to heat up this fall as the certified unions intensify their campaigns. The elections are expected to be held late this year or early next.

The stakes are extraordinarily high: The winning unions could pull in millions of dollars in dues from members; the losers could cease to exist.

Such a fight is enough to prompt unions to spend big money on their campaigns.

For instance, six years ago, former Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh signed a similar executive order for his state's 27,000 employees -- two-thirds the size of Maryland's eligible work force. In a bitter fight, unions poured an estimated $15 million into campaigns to sign up workers.

In Maryland, Glendening's executive order set in motion a process that will force eligible workers -- including those already affiliated with a union -- to choose one as their group's collective bargaining agent.

Many state workers already are members of unions, which primarily have handled individual employee grievances. But Glendening's order divides workers into bargaining units, and it allows each unit to elect a union to negotiate with the administration. It also requires managers to discuss wages, hours and working conditions with those unions.

The result will be a limited version of collective bargaining because any agreement reached would not be binding on the governor or the legislature, and the order contains no provision to resolve disputes between labor and management.

It also forbids state employees from striking.

By signing the order, Glendening made good on a vow to union officials who delivered campaign support during the 1994 governor's race.

Order criticized

But he also touched off a brouhaha among legislators, state business leaders and even some union officials.

Legislative leaders said he circumvented the General Assembly's power when he signed the order only weeks after the legislature rejected a similar plan.

He also angered some state business leaders who had difficulty reconciling such a scheme with Glendening's claims that he is "pro-business." In fact, three business groups -- the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Greater Washington Board of Trade -- are still considering a lawsuit to block the order.

So far, the three highest-profile unions in the fight are the Maryland Classified Employees Association (MCEA), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the Maryland Federation of Public Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also has weighed in, wooing officers in various state police agencies. The Teamsters also joined forces with AFSCME -- in a coalition known as the United Corrections and Public Safety Employees of Maryland -- in a bid to represent corrections, parole and probation workers.

"We want to get to the bargaining table as soon as we can," said Joseph M. Lawrence, an AFSCME spokesman. "The driving thing is that state employees have waited too long for this."

Buddy Roogow, the Glendening aide overseeing the collective bargaining issue, said state officials should know next month which unions have received enough employee signatures to take part in the elections.

"At some point, after the unions' petitions are determined to be valid, the 90-day clock for the elections will start," Roogow said.

In the meantime, officials at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation will be reviewing the union "petitions" -- cards signed by employees authorizing a union to be their exclusive bargaining agent. State officials will verify that the signers are employees eligible for union representation.

30 percent threshold

Unions must submit cards from 30 percent of the employees in a bargaining unit -- a grouping of employees with similar job descriptions -- to qualify to be on the ballot. Nine units were established by Glendening's order, though the number could end up being larger, Roogow said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.