Washington Co. officials swiftly give union the boot Ending of 25-year relationship sends tremors to Annapolis

March 29, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- When the Washington County commissioners went behind closed doors and kicked out Denny Embly's union this month, the husky equipment operator never saw it coming.

Without public hearings or advance notice, four Republican commissioners overrode the objections of the commission's lone Democrat and abolished the county's 25-year-long collective bargaining relationship with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2677.

"It was a total shock," said Embly, one of 87 county road and landfill workers represented by the union. "Nothing was ever let out or let on until they did it."

The move was not prompted by a strike or other job action, the commissioners said, but simply because they didn't want to deal with unions anymore.

"It's a fundamental belief that the taxpayers are better served by not having a collective bargaining agreement in place," said Commissioner Jim Wade, who added that he'd like to see other Maryland counties follow suit.

The tremors that reverberated through Washington County after the March 18 vote have since spread to Annapolis. And what started out as a nasty local power struggle is turning into a clash with statewide implications.

Washington County's move is being applauded by some conservative business leaders. But the county's legislative delegation -- none of whom is wildly liberal -- is moving to undo what they see as serious damage.

Last week, after the four commissioners rebuffed an appeal by the delegation to reverse their decision, the legislators voted 6-0, with two abstentions, to try to undo the action in the waning days of the General Assembly session, which ends April 7.

The opposition of the county's three Democratic delegates was predictable, but the commissioners' surprise move brought condemnation from conservative Republicans as well.

"I think the commissioners were dead wrong on this one," said Sen. John W. Derr, a Frederick County Republican whose district includes part of Washington County. "Just to all of a sudden pull out the rug like that is very bad."

Uphill struggle

Joining Derr in opposing the commissioners were two other Republicans, Sen. Donald F. Munson and Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, and Democratic Dels. D. Bruce Poole, John P. Donoghue and Sue Hecht. Two Republican delegates, Robert A. McKee and J. Anita Stup, didn't vote.

Munson warned union members who came to Annapolis Thursday that passing the bill so late in the session won't be easy -- even with the General Assembly's usual deference to county delegations when considering local bills.

"If it doesn't get done, it won't be because we haven't given it our best shot," Munson said.

But Robert O. C. Worcester, president of the conservative group Maryland Business for Responsive Government, said the issue was more than a local matter. He said he and others in the state's business community would support the commissioners.

The legislators' action has poisoned what had already been a hostile relationship between them and the commissioners.

Wade, a former Air Force officer who once served on a crew controlling intercontinental ballistic missiles, spent much of an interview Friday taking verbal shots at opposing legislators.

"Gutless, full-time, multi-term politicians" was one of his more colorful descriptions of the lawmakers, whom he accused of butting into a strictly local matter for the sake of political gain.

Poole criticized the commissioners for making their decision without public notice and likened the move to throwing a cherry bomb into a dynamite factory.

"It's hard to imagine an issue that would spark the life into the labor unions in Washington County as this one has," Poole said.

Indeed, other unions have already rallied to AFSCME's defense in a street protest last week that drew more than 200 unionists.

In labor relations, cutting off recognition of the union is the equivalent of total war. In the public sector, it is usually reserved for cases where the union has launched an illegal strike or other job action -- as in the case of President Ronald Reagan's 1981 decision to oust the striking air traffic controllers' union.

In this case, the union had not taken any provocative action, said Ronald L. Bowers, the commission's only Democrat. Bowers, a member of the United Auto Workers, said he believed his Republican colleagues had been planning to oust AFSCME for months.

When they first announced the end of collective bargaining, the commissioners claimed they had reached an "impasse" after months of negotiating over a new contract.

But Wade, a 40-year-old liquor store owner, said that what really prompted the commissioners' action was not anything AFSCME did, but a concern that the Teamsters union was planning to organize the county sheriff's department.

Rather than see unionism spread more widely in the county's work force of 600, the commissioners decided to repeal the county's resolution instituting collective bargaining, he said.

Contract was near

Local President Dale "Rusty" Bowser said he learned the commissioners had rescinded bargaining rights just as he was preparing to set up a ratification meeting where union leaders planned to recommend accepting the county's latest offer.

Bowser said the union's relations with the county government had taken a downturn after a Republican majority swept into power in the 1994 elections.

"Under the previous county commissioners going back to 1972, there had always been a good relationship between labor and management," he said. But since then, he said, the county administration has refused to process grievances and taken a hard-line stance in bargaining.

Embly, a shop steward and member of the union's negotiating committee, said the county government's decision had strained personal relationships in this small Western Maryland city.

"These commissioners are the guys we run into at the grocery store," he said.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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