Unions ask protection in plan for city schools But legislators say changes could kill bill

February 10, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

A behind-the-scenes effort to include broad union protections in legislation for the $254 million city schools deal could undermine the aid-for-accountability plan now before the General Assembly, key lawmakers said last week.

A group of labor unions is pressuring Maryland legislators and state education officials to provide Baltimore school system employees with the same benefits, rights and protections under a new school board that they now enjoy.

It is clear from legislators, however, that the unions face an uphill fight.

"If all of what they want is included, I think it would kill the bill," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and a major architect of the legislation.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller made it clear that if the legislation is amended heavily, it would die in the legislature.

"Labor amendments to this bill at this time could very well be the shot that sinks the ship and sends everything to the bottom," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "In its present form, it is already an unbelievably difficult, if not impossible, sell."

For weeks, lawyers for the unions have been quietly negotiating with lawyers for the state and city to hammer out compromise amendments to the legislation. Two House of Delegates subcommittees will consider those amendments and others today.

Meanwhile, some of the unions are shopping for lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature -- and threatening to go to court in an attempt to stop the legislation from becoming law without the worker protections.

"We're hoping that these issues can be taken care of with 'friendly' amendments, but we're also planning what needs to be done if that can't take place," said Marcia Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

The proposal for additional money to Baltimore results from the settlement of three lawsuits seeking more state aid and improvements in the city schools. The settlement is contingent, however, on legislative approval of the additional money for the city.

As part of the court settlement, a new school board would be created, with its members appointed jointly by the governor and mayor. In addition, the top management of the school system would be replaced and accountability safeguards put in place.

Any major variance between the legislation and the settlement's consent decree could put the matter back before the court.

Nevertheless, "Without these amendments, we fear the bill will result in labor strife rather than the reform we all seek," Brown said at the first hearing on the schools deal a week ago.

During that hearing, representatives of the BTU, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, gave their conditional backing to the bill.

But they registered concerns that school system employees, now part of the city's civil service system, would lose certain rights and said they wanted to see the legislation amended to offer those protections to workers.

Under the legislation as proposed, teachers and nonprofessional school workers would become employees of the new school board, instead of the city.

That means that they would lose their seniority, their ability to transfer to other departments and other rights. They also would lose any accrued vacation, sick leave and personal leave days, pension benefits and health insurance, union officials contend.

The bill, as it is now worded, would guarantee employees the right to bargain collectively with the new school board. But the unions "do not want to start negotiating at ground zero on July 1, 1997," when the bill would become law, Brown said.

"As it stands now, the bill sends a hostile message to the employees," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., executive director of AFSCME Council 67.

"We stand ready to fix the defects in House Bill 312, but they must be fixed if we are to move forward as a team to reform the school system," he said.

Rawlings said he believes achievable amendments are possible to address some of the union's concerns -- but not all.

"They want to negotiate their collective bargaining agreement in the bill, totally usurping the authority of the new board of school commissioners," Rawlings said. "They want to maintain what they now have, and that's not going to work."

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the East Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city Senate delegation, said he wants to see the union workers' rights protected in the legislation.

But he, too, sees the issue as a dangerous sticking point that could threaten the bill.

"There are some folks who just don't like unions, and they would like to use this to derail the whole bill," he said.

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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