Emotions run high in all-business lawsuit State employees angry at attempt to block collective bargaining

December 26, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

State fiscal clerk grade 3 Cindi Foard and Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Champe C. McCulloch had not met before last week, when Foard and some other union protesters went to Annapolis to present him with an early Christmas gift -- a box of coal.

The gift fit for a Grinch typified the hard feelings swirling around the lawsuit filed by three business groups last week to overturn Gov. Parris N. Glendening's executive order granting collective bargaining rights to state workers such as Foard.

McCulloch sees the governor's order as a blow to business sensibilities. In the ultracompetitive interstate battle for jobs, he reasons, Maryland's governor is sending a bad signal to corporate executives.

Down in the trenches of state government, signals count for little with Foard. She's more concerned about the blows she has suffered in her 10 years as a state fiscal clerk -- furloughs and pay freezes, a longer workweek and layoffs.

The collective bargaining order, she says, is a long overdue step toward restoring employees' "dignity."

"I don't think the public is aware of how we are treated," says Foard, 38, a mother of three who helps manage the vehicle fleet for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "You used to be proud to say you worked for the state. Now you don't know."

Despite the protests of Foard and others, McCulloch and the heads of two other prominent business groups filed suit in Anne Arundel County court last week seeking to negate Glendening's order.

The suit asserts that Glendening exceeded his authority in issuing the directive; only the General Assembly can authorize collective bargaining for state workers, it claims.

The seeds for the lawsuit were sown nearly three years ago when Glendening, as a candidate for governor in a hotly contested Democratic primary, promised to fight for collective bargaining for state workers -- something they had sought for decades.

The promise had two parts, although only one was widely remembered. Glendening said he would try to enact legislation in the General Assembly. If that failed, he said, he would issue an executive order granting bargaining rights.

Unions rewarded Glendening with endorsements and mailed reminders of his stance to their members.

His first year in office, he backed off this and other controversial issues to take time to adapt to Annapolis.

This year, Glendening formally proposed a collective bargaining bill. Such measures have come and gone in Annapolis for at least a quarter-century, but never had a governor made collective bargaining part of his legislative agenda.

Union supporters such as Foard gathered in Annapolis daily to press legislators. But in the face of strong opposition from the business community and some key legislators, the collective bargaining bill died in committee.

"We thought the battle had been won," says Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a plaintiff in the suit.

But after the session, Glendening aides began meeting quietly with union leaders to craft an executive order. As it surfaced in May, the order was a major victory for labor.

The governor's directive gave some 40,000 state workers the right to vote for union representation, and unions could bargain with the administration over salaries, benefits and work conditions.

But there were significant limitations. The order provided no mechanism for settling bargaining impasses, nor did it allow strikes. And, most importantly, the agreements would not be binding on the governor or legislature.

Even so, many state workers were thrilled.

"He's about the first governor that did something for state employees, and our hat is off to him," says Mike Hamilton, a heavy equipment mechanic with 18 years of experience with the state.

The reaction from lawmakers was generally critical. Some called for a special session to undo the order, an idea dismissed by the Assembly's presiding officers.

The leaders of the state's three main business groups, meanwhile, pushed ahead with plans for a legal challenge.

In a series of meetings, the governor and his aides tried to talk the groups out of the suit, arguing that it would only hurt the very thing the business community values most -- Maryland's image as a good place to do business. After all, how good can things be if the state's business leaders are suing the governor over a policy issue?

"Make no mistake about it. This has not been an easy decision for the business community," Hutchinson says.

Finally the three groups -- the Chamber, the GBC and the Greater Washington Board of Trade -- decided to sue.

In its legal arguments, the suit asserts that the governor overstepped his authority. But outside of court, the business leaders say the motivation for the legal action is the simple proposition that collective bargaining is bad for the Maryland economy. It will inevitably lead to higher salaries and benefit costs for the state, which can translate into higher taxes, a sure turnoff to business.

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