Owens withdraws bill aimed at local unions

Measure to give county greater control over labor met with harsh criticism

November 04, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens backed away yesterday from another potentially messy spat with the county's labor unions, whose members were once her staunchest supporters.

Owens had proposed legislation that would have allowed the county to set pensions and work schedules without negotiations. The proposed law also would have set a minimum of 50 employees to form a union.

The second-term Democrat -- facing coordinated opposition from the county's nine employee unions -- withdrew yesterday morning the bill she had submitted to the County Council.

"She would have had quite a battle on her hands had she gone forward," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police.

The unions had planned to protest last night in front of the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

"That was just the beginning," said Dave Belisle, a deputy sheriff and vice president of Teamsters Local 103. He added that the Teamsters' national office in Washington intended to help fight the legislation.

The unions said the legislation was intended to circumvent a binding arbitration charter amendment passed by voters last year. It turns over the final say in some contract disputes to a third-party arbitrator.

Last week county firefighter's union president Keith W. Wright called the bill "the broadest, most sweeping anti-employee, union-busting piece of legislation" in the county's history of labor relations.

An Owens spokeswoman said yesterday that the county executive withdrew the legislation "in the spirit of cooperation" after meeting with Ernie Grecco, president of the AFL-CIO Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Grecco told The Sun last week, "She has been fair in the past with the unions, and this is a change."

All nine union contracts expire in June during what is expected to be a tight fiscal time; Owens already is discussing possible tax increases.

County Personnel Officer Mark Atkisson said the county sought the legislation because of concerns that under binding arbitration, different arbitrators could create different pension plans -- and a management nightmare.

The bill, he said, sought to have the pension plan details and other labor arrangements set by County Council legislation instead of by arbitrators.

Atkisson said most of the items that would have been removed from the negotiation process already are management rights. He added that county officials still would have discussed pension and other issues with the unions.

The clause creating a minimum union size, Atkisson said, was prompted by an arbitrator's decision this summer to allow the sheriff's sergeants -- a group of fewer than 10 -- to form a union.

"If you had a bunch of eight- or 10-person unions, I could theoretically have another 100 [unions]," Atkisson said. "That would be operationally very difficult to negotiate with that many groups."

A little less than three-quarters of the county's 4,000 employees, not including court and school workers, are represented by unions. The labor unions provided overwhelming support for Owens when she was first elected to the county's top post in 1998. They also pushed for her re-election last year.

But contract negotiations turned messy last spring and summer. Owens proposed wage freezes for nearly all county employees, including teachers. She wouldn't budge, even after the council freed up additional money.

Her plan hit a hitch when public safety unions helped derail her wage-freeze legislation, creating a hole in her budget. She responded by firing 18 employees, including 16 police officers. She also cut positions in the Fire Department and raised health care contribution rates for employees of several unions.

Yesterday union leaders said they were cautiously happy.

Said the police union's Atkinson: "My thought is, `OK, they've withdrawn that. Now what are they going to do?'"

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