The court readies the buck for our esteemed legislators

September 18, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Sometime this fall, the Maryland Court of Appeals is going to decide whether Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bizarre decision to overturn 60 years of precedent and unilaterally grant collective-bargaining rights to some 40,000 state employees will stand or fall.

In view of the seven-member court's ideological tint, and considering the hostile reception it gave lawyers opposing the administration plan when the collective-bargaining case was argued last week in Annapolis, there's little doubt it will come down on the governor's side, probably unanimously. Then the governor and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly will be really delighted, right?

Wrong, almost certainly, although they'd never say so. They may not be especially concerned that the decision will mean big trouble for the state, legally and economically, in the long run. But they'd have to be comatose not to realize that it will also mean big trouble for them politically in the much shorter run. And comatose they're not, even if Mr. Glendening gives a good imitation of it at times.

For one thing, from the standpoint of the big-labor Democrats, the timing is execrable. The General Assembly convenes in January for the last session before its members, and the governor, face the voters. The Court of Appeals decision will probably be out by then, and the public will have had a little time to begin to digest its implications.

A pro-union decision by the court will snatch away the politicians' last chance to ignore the issue on the grounds that it's still under judicial review. They'll be standing naked and exposed, all that's left between the unions and the public purse. And as the session proceeds and the elections near, some spooky behavior can be expected.

Meanwhile, the unions smell blood. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and its colorful partner, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, of whom more later, are already demanding a 17 percent pay raise for the correctional guards they won an election last summer to represent. The guards are in the so-called lead bargaining unit, and the unions want a contract that will set a pattern.

The Maryland Classified Employees Association, the major public-sector union in Maryland until the big boys from outside came crashing in, is suing the state over the conduct of the bargaining elections. But in the Maryland courts, that suit has little more chance than the more prominent one, brought by a coalition of business groups, at which the Court of Appeals sneered two weeks ago.

The plaintiffs in that case argued that the governor had no authority to grant collective bargaining by executive order, without legislative authority. And they noted that the legislature has rejected collective bargaining again and again, from 1937 to the present.

They cited with particular interest a 1982 Court of Appeals decision, rejecting collective bargaining for the Mass Transit Administration, which stated explicitly that ''It is established in the state that, absent express legislative authority, a government agency cannot enter into binding arbitration or binding collective bargaining agreements establishing wages, hours, pension rights or working conditions for public employees.''

The author of those words, and that decision, was Judge John C. Eldridge. Now the senior member of the court, Judge Eldridge did most of the questioning when the current collective-bargaining case was argued. He made it fairly clear that he doesn't believe that any labor agreements reached under the Glendening order are in fact legally binding because the governor or the legislature could always overturn them.

The judge had better tell that to the Teamsters, who in the wake of their violence-marred strike against United Parcel Service are now hustling public-sector employees -- including police officers into their fold all across the nation. The Teamsters/AFSCME literature being distributed in Maryland certainly conveys no hint that the unions think that what's going on here is only play-acting. It sounds as though they're playing for keeps.

(The Maryland State Police, to their great credit, rejected the Teamsters in favor of a coalition of three unions -- the Maryland Troopers Association, the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers and the Fraternal Order of Police. The 5-to-1 margin was something of a rebuff to the union of Jimmy Hoffa, Jackie Presser and Ron Carey. But it'll be back.)

As its legislative record attests, Maryland has long been a pro-labor state, but also a sensible one. It has been suspicious of collective bargaining for public employees because, among other reasons, it might lead to strikes. Strikes by public employees are legal in Prince George's County, which gave us Governor Glendening, but not in the Maryland work force. However, in a state in which the governor can defy the legislature in bringing about collective bargaining, that's not especially reassuring.

So it'll be interesting to look forward to next year -- when the Court of Appeals has passed the buck back again, when the legislature gets one last chance to stop the collective-bargaining snowball, when the governor continues to insist that it's all only a game, when the elections are getting closer, and when the voters of Maryland are getting increasingly annoyed.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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