State employees union set for bargaining push

AFSCME wants bill expanding effort, after backing governor in '98

January 07, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Of all the people who backed Gov. Parris N. Glendening in his successful re-election campaign, few have as legitimate a claim to his gratitude as Donna Edwards and her colleagues at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Edwards, head of AFSCME's branch representing state workers, and her union pulled out all the stops for the governor in his campaign against Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. AFSCME donated thousands of dollars, helped produce ads, ran get-out-the-vote operations and evangelized among its members in support of the man whose 1996 executive order gave state employees the right to bargain collectively.

So when Edwards ran into the governor at a social event over the holiday season, she didn't have to inquire about the union's top legislative priority. She said Glendening informed her that he would push a bill to expand collective bargaining to additional agencies and enshrine representation rights in state law.

"He told me -- I didn't ask," the 44-year-old union leader said.

Glendening wouldn't comment directly on the account, but said with a grin that he would deliver on his "commitments."

The next step -- persuading the General Assembly to pass the legislation -- won't be nearly as easy for Edwards. But she said the union and its labor allies are in a strong position as the legislature heads into the 90-day session that begins Wednesday.

For one thing, Edwards said, the state has two years of collective bargaining experience under the executive order. The results, she said, have discredited the dire predictions made by opponents.

"The things they said we were going to do haven't happened," she said. "We haven't broken the bank. We haven't been unreasonable."

Under Glendening's order, the union selected by employees holds contract talks with the executive branch, and the governor submits the resulting agreements to the General Assembly in his budget. The agreements are not binding on legislators, and state employees have no right to strike.

Edwards, who works at the Department of Social Services in Baltimore, said the union's bargaining sessions with the state have been "a real eye-opener."

"What really has come out is the inequities we find out from one agency to another within departments," said Edwards.

She said one thing that was uncovered through the bargaining process was that many employees were denied overtime pay they were entitled to under state law. In some cases, she said, senior managers had not been aware of abuses occurring until they learned about them in bargaining.

"When you have collective bargaining and you have a contract, we know the rules and management knows the rules," she said.

Champe McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said his organization would fight any bargaining bill.

"Whenever you have collective bargaining for state employees, you have higher costs of state government and no apparent correlation with higher quality of service received by the public," he said.

McCulloch said giving collective bargaining force of law would hurt the state's business image.

"If the legislature were to follow suit, it renews and reinforces the message that this legislature is favorably disposed toward organized labor, and many businesses regard that as validation that you're not very favorably disposed toward business," he said.

However, the results of the election have left the chamber in a weaker position. While the organization was officially neutral, McCulloch and other chamber leaders did little to camouflage their preference for Sauerbrey.

They are paying the price in loss of influence.

AFSCME and labor emerged from the election with the look of a winner -- a result that could help Edwards as she makes the rounds in Annapolis.

The fight for collective bargaining rights is not a new one for Edwards. She was chairman of AFSCME's Maryland legislative committee in 1981 when labor's bid for collective bargaining rights fell one vote short in the House of Delegates. She was two years into her current post as president of AFSCME Council 92 when the Assembly rejected Glendening's first collective bargaining bill in 1996.

Edwards and her allies have reason to be optimistic. This year, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, has endorsed writing collective bargaining rights into law.

The unions have hurdles to clear, including two skeptical committee chairmen.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said no definitive studies have been done on the effect of collective bargaining in Maryland.

"I think it's a rush to judgment if we were to make this decision without information on the impact of this," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the legislation could have "unintended consequences" -- such as eliminating AFSCME's rival, the Maryland Classified Employees Association.

Hoffman, also a Baltimore Democrat, said bargaining under the executive order has been trouble-free. "I haven't heard any complaints from anybody -- for all the fuss that was made when it happened," she said.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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