State workers sue for pay raise

Union contends Ehrlich bound by 2% increase negotiated by Glendening

Case first test of bargaining law

April 30, 2003|By Tim Craig and David Nitkin | Tim Craig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The union that represents 27,000 state workers filed a lawsuit yesterday to try to force Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to abide by the 2 percent pay raise his predecessor negotiated for Maryland employees just weeks before leaving office.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92 alleges that Ehrlich was bound by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's deal with the union. Glendening signed the contract the day before he left office in January.

The lawsuit - filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court - is expected to be the first test of how a 1999 law that guarantees bargaining rights to state employees is implemented.

"We are all aware that outgoing administrations do a lot of things that bind and have a subsequent effect on the subsequent administration," said Joel A. Smith, an attorney for the union. "How could one assume that every agreement or contract the governor or the Board of Public Works makes could somehow evaporate on the morning of the next governor's inauguration?"

At question, say lawyers on both sides, is whether a new governor is bound to a contract with state employees negotiated by a previous administration, as if it were a contract to purchase highway equipment made under similar circumstances.

When he submitted his budget to the General Assembly this year, Ehrlich ignored the contract with the union.

The governor, who laughed at the lawsuit yesterday, said this winter that the state could not afford to give the 2 percent raises because of what was then a $2 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.

Legislative leaders also condemned Glendening then for negotiating the $100 million worth of pay raises during a budgetary crisis. The Assembly passed a $22.4 billion budget for next year that did not include any raises for state employees, who have not had a salary increase in almost three years.

Yesterday, Ehrlich said he was dismayed that the union is continuing to press the issue even as his administration is working to avoid layoffs.

"You can't even look at it seriously," Ehrlich said. "It's really interesting that this particular group would want to benefit some state employees and cost others their jobs."

But the union's lawsuit says Ehrlich had an obligation to put the agreement in his budget so the legislature could decide whether the state could afford the cost-of-living increases.

The state's collective-bargaining law empowers a governor to negotiate contracts but gives the legislature final say to approve them - particularly when it comes to provisions that cost money.

"That is the process: We negotiate the contract, and then the General Assembly has to say if the money is there," said Sallie Davies, president of AFSCME Council 92. "But in this case, the General Assembly has not stood in the way of our contract, the governor has."

The lawsuit also alleges that the state has been slow to implement parts of the law, such as defining what constitutes an unfair labor practice and how conflicts should be resolved.

Ehrlich, Budget Secretary James C. DiPaula, the state of Maryland and the state Labor Relations Board are named as defendants.

Smith, the union's attorney, said he will ask the courts to decide how the collective-bargaining law should be implemented - not whether the state can afford to give raises this year.

"This is a process case," Smith said. "This is asking the court to rule on the how of the matter, not the what of the matter."

But the union is seeking an order requiring Ehrlich to request the money to pay for the raises and other associated costs in either a supplemental budget this year or in the 2005 spending plan he will unveil in January.

Because it is the first lawsuit since the collective bargaining became law, Smith said he expects the issue to go before the Court of Appeals: "What we really want the court to do is help us and help the parties understand the law so we know where we are going."

Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general, said his office determined that Ehrlich was not required to include money in his budget to cover the raises Glendening negotiated.

"Our reading of the statute is that the governor who signs the deal has to be the one who does the funding," Zarnoch said. "Because Ehrlich was not the governor who signed it, he did not have to fund it."

Smith responded by questioning Zarnoch's credentials to speak on the matter. "Mr. Zarnoch is not a judge," Smith said. "I know he often holds forth with his opinions about matters, but he is not a member of the judiciary."

But two former governors - who noted they never had to deal with collective bargaining while in office - said yesterday that they do not fault Ehrlich for submitting a budget without pay raises.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes said a governor generally feels "compelled to abide by a contract" but also has an "obligation" to re-examine it if the state can't afford it.

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