University labor bill is expected to pass

Glendening pushes for bargaining rights for support workers

End exploitation, he says

Latest in pro-labor initiatives

critics fear culture shift

January 21, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Armed with the strong support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, employees of Maryland's public universities appear poised to win collective bargaining rights during this year's General Assembly session.

If approved, about 10,000 janitors, clerical workers and other support personnel on the state's campuses would join Maryland's other public employees in earning the right to negotiate such issues as wages, benefits and working conditions - a major component of the governor's pro-labor agenda.

"We ought to be the center of knowledge and learning, and we ought not to be exploiting people to do that," Glendening said last week. "I firmly believe it will pass this year."

After lobbying by the governor, a key committee of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland has recommended support of collective bargaining - a position likely to be adopted by the full board at its meeting next month.

And if the regents give their blessing, the legislation is expected to pass the Senate, which has been the stumbling block in the past.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller described collective bargaining as "an issue that is on a fast track toward approval."

"With the economy being what it is and the governor's chief concern to make certain that no segment of Maryland's working population misses the benefits of the economy, I think it has an excellent chance of passage," Miller said.

The House of Delegates has easily approved similar collective bargaining legislation in the past.

The growing support for collective bargaining is a marked change from previous years, when university officials and business groups vigorously opposed it - warning of high costs to taxpayers and damage to the collaborative nature of college campuses. The state's leading business organizations sued the governor to try to stop collective bargaining for other state workers in 1996.

Though the business community remains opposed, university officials - under heavy pressure from Glendening and beneficiaries of his proposed large spending increases on higher education - have muted their opposition and appear resigned to passage.

For workers such as LaVerne McNeal, a medical assistant at Baltimore City Community College, collective bargaining can't come soon enough.

"Every week, I see more and more employees come in to the health and wellness center with stress-related problems," said McNeal, 37. "They're overworked. We have people being asked to do the jobs of two and three people, and there's no way to speak up about it and be heard.

"Having a union that can bargain would put us on a more equal level with management," she said.

Though details of the governor's bill won't be known until it's introduced tomorrow, it's expected that collective bargaining would apply to nonfaculty, nonmanagerial employees throughout the university system, as well as those in the three state schools outside the system - Baltimore City Community College, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College.

It's unclear how collective bargaining might apply to several thousand contract employees in the university system, some of whom have been working for years on temporary contracts without benefits.

If legislation is approved, elections would be held on the campuses for permanent employees to decide whether to authorize a union as their agent to negotiate wages and working conditions. Strikes would not be permitted.

Two unions - the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Maryland Classified Employees Association - are expected to vie for the right to represent the university workers.

Employees of public university systems in 24 other states, representing more than half the nation's public universities, have collective bargaining rights, according to union officials.

"We could bargain pay raises, benefits, promotion plans and evaluations," said Roosevelt Brown, an electrician at Morgan State University for the past 10 years.

"It would no longer be the managers saying, `This is how it is going to be, and that's it.' We would get a chance to talk," Brown said.

Glendening says he has made collective bargaining a priority because he remembers talking to the custodians and other workers who cleaned his classrooms and office during his days as a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Just about all of these individuals had to work second jobs to support their families," he said.

Those workers include Ernestine Jones, a housekeeper at the University of Maryland who makes about $9 an hour.

Each afternoon, she goes from the university to the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt, where she cleans for another four hours each evening, not returning home to Laurel until 10 p.m.

"It's a long day and a short night," said Jones, 57, who has worked two jobs since 1985 to support her family.

"We need to be able to bargain to get more money, so I could spend more time with my family," she said.

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