County workers union requests meeting with Smith in open letter

January 30, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Making good on its pledge to pressure Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for better pay and benefits, the union representing the county government's civilian workers issued an open letter to Smith yesterday asking for a meeting to plead their case.

"The administrators, the County Council, fire fighters and police officers routinely get raises, but the hard working civilian sector is left in the dust. Why is this?" Jeff Magness, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, wrote to the executive. "Our health care deductions have increased, the vision, dental, and prescription costs have risen. There has been a lot of `take' and not much `give' from the administration in a very long time."

Negotiations between the county and municipal unions on one-year contracts are in the early stages. This year could be difficult because of the possibility of cuts in state aid and lingering effects of the recession.

The past two county budgets have not included general pay increases for workers, leading to complaints last year from the police and teachers unions that Smith treated them unfairly.

In addition, a new county law giving police and fire unions the right to binding arbitration has sparked worries that those groups will get more generous contracts and that other workers will get shortchanged.

Smith's spokeswoman, Renee Samuels, said the executive would not meet with the federation - which includes 911 operators, correctional officers, highway crew chiefs and clerks - or any other union while negotiations are under way.

"It undercuts the negotiator's ability if they go to Jim instead of working with the negotiator," she said.

Samuels added that it is too early in the budget process for the executive to know whether money will be available for a general raise.

The letter, which Magness sent to the press and his membership but not to Smith, is the union's second effort to bolster its bargaining position. Dozens of members packed the County Council meeting Jan. 19 to draw attention to their situation. After that meeting, Magness said the union would continue to press Smith for raises.

Although police officers and, to a lesser extent, firefighters saw markedly higher salaries and improved benefits in the 1990s, Magness said other government employees have not. Since 1995, general government employees have seen cost-of-living raises of 9 percent. In that time, the Consumer Price Index has risen nearly 21 percent.

Magness said that he has tried to contact Smith on several occasions but that he has found the executive "unreachable." Magness said that he is not sure a meeting would result in tangible gains but that he believes it would be an important gesture to show employees that the executive will listen to them.

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