Blue-collar union rejects county offer

Local's officers plan to press Owens for improved contract

Pact loses, 154-100

2% minimum boost in pay for each of next 3 years rejected

June 23, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County's blue-collar union has rejected a three-year contract offer by a 3-to-2 margin, and union officials say they will press County Executive Janet S. Owens to sweeten her offer during the next fiscal year.

Members of the 834-member AFSCME Local 582, which represents county workers ranging from 911 dispatchers to road crew members, turned down the contract Wednesday night, 154-100. The vote capped an emotional season of labor talks and leaves the union as the only one in county government without a new contract.

The contract, which was to begin July 1, would have provided a minimum of 2 percent salary increases in each of the three years. But it could have translated to 5 percent or more per year for employees affected by pay-scale restructuring in the first and second years of the contract.

Because the offer was rejected, the current contract remains in effect. That means some employees - fewer than half - will see regularly scheduled merit raises of between 2.5 percent and 5 percent.

But the proposed 2 percent across-the-board raise for the 2000-2001 fiscal year is in doubt. Owens has not decided whether to approve the increase, even though she set aside money in the new budget.

"She'll have to sit down and think about it," spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter said. "I can't tell you in strong enough terms how disappointed County Executive Owens is," he added, noting that 911 dispatchers stood to see raises of up to 8 percent and that Anne Arundel blue-collar workers already earn more than most of their counterparts in Maryland.

Union leaders hope Owen does not pull the plug on the 2 percent raise. "I wouldn't think they would do that, but who knows?" said Scott Harmon, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "Stranger things have happened."

Harmon said Wednesday's vote did not surprise him: "There was a lot of bitterness as to what happened in contact negotiations."

After complaining all spring that the county's offer was significantly lower than what police and firefighters were given, the union went through an impasse process that included mediation and fact-finding. That process culminated with a hearing before the County Council, whose recommendation of a 3 percent raise was angrily rejected by Owens.

Harmon said his members would rather be "stuck with" a 2 percent raise this year, if they get even that, than accept a multiyear contract they consider inadequate. While he doubts the administration will dangle a better deal next year, Harmon suggested the union may withdraw its support of Owens if that does not happen.

"She has the opportunity over the next two years to pay us what we're worth," he said, alluding to the election in 2002.

Hoping to win over the union's members, Owens had promised to introduce and support county legislation allowing retirement for AFSCME workers after 30 years, regardless of the employee's age. That plan is now uncertain.

"That's part of what we're still evaluating," said Randall Schultz, county personnel officer.

The proposed contract included several pension improvements, such as payment for accrued sick leave. The county also agreed to adjust the hourly wage of about 28 employees who in 1996 went from working 35 hours a week to 40 hours without being paid for the extra hours. In return, union officials agreed to accept training wages for certain new employees.

County officials had rejected the recommendations of an independent fact-finder who said the county should give AFSCME employees at least a 4 percent across-the-board raise next year.

When the County Council recommended a 3 percent salary increase last month, Owens criticized the council for setting "a dangerous precedent" by offering more than she had.

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