A little-watched case pending in the Court of Appeals could save the jobs of thousands of public employees by making it harder for government to turn over their jobs to private contractors.
A victory would give public employee unions a powerful weapon in their fight against privatization -- the ability to tie up such job losses in the same merit system complaint process by which they now protest individual firings and layoffs.
The Montgomery County Government Employees Union sued over provisions in the proposed 1996 county budget that would turn over government services to the private sector, eliminating 156 county jobs. The union claimed the move amounted to a stealth attack on employees, and on the merit system itself because of a potential for manipulating contracts.
"We are the first union that took the initiative to challenge this kind of management in the court system," said Gino Renne, president of the Montgomery County Government Employees Union.
"Contracting out of government services is the gauntlet for the labor unions," said Charles L. Short, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, who said people he had hired were chief among those whose jobs went to private, often nonprofit, agencies.
The court is to hear arguments Sept. 4. The judges could craft a narrow decision that would be binding only on Montgomery County, said William W. Thompson II, union lawyer. Or they could write a decision in a way that would define job protections for local government employees and set ground rules for privatization for local governments elsewhere in the state. Every municipality has a unique set of civil service laws, collective bargaining laws and union pacts.
Under the Montgomery budget proposal, workers who lost their jobs because of privatization could shift into other jobs, some less desirable, where they may eventually suffer pay cuts.
The county's Merit Systems Protection Board said it had no authority to hear the grievances of the 156 workers over whether government functions should be taken from merit employees.
Montgomery County officials, like counterparts elsewhere, maintain that what tasks government does are precisely the decisions made during the budget process. Public hearings are the place for questions and opinions. The politically active can always hold rallies in public and lobby in private.
"The county cannot bargain away important policy decisions or leave those subject to a forum where the citizens cannot participate," said Edward B. Lattner, associate Montgomery County attorney who will argue for the county.
Budgets to balance
Privatization, hardly new, began increasing in the early 1990s, as rTC officials around the nation grappled with out-of-balance budgets, said Bernard H. Ross, chairman and professor of the department of public administration at American University. They re-examined what services government provided and what to retain, drop or privatize, as voters frowned on tax increases.
Montgomery County government had gone through downsizing when County Executive Douglas M. Duncan proposed in early 1995 restructuring services and turning over nearly two dozen programs with a $4.5 million price tag to others. Renne said he felt "double-crossed" because Duncan made a campaign pledge only months earlier not to do that, which Duncan denies. Privately, others say union leaders were caught off-guard by members' vitriol. The grievance and lawsuit ensued.
The Montgomery County Circuit Court agreed with the merit board that employees could not grieve. The union asked the Court of Special Appeals to review the case, but the state's top court pulled it away from the intermediate appellate court.
In Montgomery County, no union workers ended up jobless due to privatization, but privatizing government work always carries that threat.
"Obviously, a thing that conflicts with [privatization] is some government employees are going to lose their jobs," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Savings not certain
Savings and good services are not guaranteed, everyone acknowledged.
In Anne Arundel County, County Executive John G. Gary considered contracting out the operation of a 400-bed county jail under construction in Glen Burnie. It would have meant firing 50 detention center workers.
Gary decided against privatization last year. The savings were questionable and he had doubts about opening a jail with new management.
But the threat of job loss "was an attention-getter," said Thomas W. Mullenix, acting county personnel director. The detention workers union negotiated a no-layoff provision for the new two-year contract that took effect July 1.
Pub Date: 8/26/97