Bargaining bill's prospects dim

Legislation to aid university workers has no hearing date

March 10, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Despite an intensive lobbying campaign, legislation to secure collective bargaining rights for 10,000 state university workers appears to be in trouble in the General Assembly.

With just a month to go in the 90-day session, the bill has yet to receive a committee hearing date. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has quietly registered his opposition to the proposal, sources say, at least in part out of concern that the Assembly not approve too many labor-backed bills.

Dozens of university workers have gone to the State House to argue that they deserve the same bargaining rights as 35,000 other state workers with union representation.

One of them was Dorothy Cunningham, a $9.31-an-hour housekeeper at Coppin State College who has been working on contract without benefits for seven years. In that time, she said, she has seen co-workers hired after her move from contractual to permanent positions.

"They're making more money, more benefits. But I'm probably working harder than they are, and I'm missing less time from work because if I'm not there, I don't get paid," said Cunningham, a single parent raising a daughter and two grandchildren in her Southwest Baltimore rowhouse.

Opponents, led by university officials, say workers don't need the legislation. The vast majority of the schools' nonfaculty, nonmanagerial workers get the same treatment as those state workers with bargaining rights, they note. Permanent employees get the same raises and benefits as other state employees, although contractual workers do not.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg argues the campuses can foster strong relations with workers in their own way, through cooperation rather than union bargaining. He says the schools already use a system of "shared governance."

"That is a collaborative, cooperative system providing for the participation of everybody," he said. "It is different, and it works."

Bills introduced in the House of Delegates and Senate would create bargaining units for four groups of state workers in the university system and similar units for workers at three other schools: Morgan State University, St. Mary's College and Baltimore City Community College.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening pushed for such rights for university workers last year, when he introduced a collective bargaining bill for all state workers, but university workers were dropped from that legislation before it passed.

This year, the governor is focusing his efforts on a labor-backed bill to require that school construction workers be paid the "prevailing" wage in their region. That legislation passed the Senate yesterday and is expected to win General Assembly approval.

The collective bargaining bill is languishing without a hearing, apparently at the request of the Senate president.

Miller denied playing a role in the legislation, but said that politicians must balance the interests of labor, business and taxpayers. Noting that most state workers have collective bargaining rights under the law passed last year, he showed little interest in revisiting the issue.

While the bill waits for a hearing, union leaders say, the university system is hiring an increasing number of contractual workers who receive few or no benefits. Sometimes they work alongside permanent workers with higher salaries and full benefits.

"It creates a caste system within the university," said Sally Davies, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We have people that work in housekeeping or dietary services who are not benefited, and it's just a miscarriage against humanity."

AFSCME argues that collective bargaining would be of particular help to more than 2,000 such contractual workers.

When Dorothy Cunningham was hired at Coppin State, she was told the contractual arrangement would be short term, she said. She's still waiting for the benefits of permanent employment.

Recently, she said, she was out for three weeks with a growth on one of her heart valves. "I wasn't really ready to go back to work, but I had to, because I wasn't getting paid," she said.

Langenberg said the university system is trying to improve the situation for contract workers.

"We have been converting contractual employees to permanent employees steadily in the past few years as we have been permitted by the legislature," he said. "It's a concern of ours, too. But if you don't have permanent positions to convert contractual employees to, you can't do it."

The chancellor said he is concerned that if workers have bargaining rights, the universities could lose flexibility in hiring. He said that unlike other state agencies, the universities must hire short-term workers to support hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants and contracts.

"Those grants and contracts are not perpetual. Those grants are made for periods of two, three, four years," Langenberg said. "You can't create permanent jobs based on temporary funding."

This hiring situation goes to the heart of Langenberg's argument against collective bargaining: that the university system should be treated differently from the rest of state government because it is different.

The legislature passed a bill last year that redefined the university system as a public corporation and, for at least a three-year period, separated the campuses from the rest of state government in several ways.

"We've been operating on the assumption that we had those three years to explore pursuing good employee relations," Langenberg said.

AFSCME lobbyist Sue Esty counters that university system employees have always been treated the same as other state workers, and it should be no different now.

"There's no compelling argument to treat any employee differently," she said.

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