City schools' bailout plan tests influence of labor

Unions launch ads critical of Ehrlich's proposed cuts

General Assembly

March 03, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Watching thousands of teachers rally outside his window last month demanding tax dollars for schools, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. grew increasingly agitated.

Finally, Ehrlich summoned a few reporters inside the governor's mansion and vented. "The Maryland state teachers union does not run public policy in the state of Maryland any longer," the governor fumed. The labor groups, he said, represent the liberal wing of the Democratic Party which have controlled the state for too long.

Now Ehrlich has an opportunity to show those unions - traditionally friends of Democrats and opponents of Republicans such as himself - that he can affect their fate. As city and state leaders negotiate a bail-out loan and management changes for cash-strapped Baltimore City schools, the governor wants to give a new schools governing board the power to impose pay cuts or layoffs, possibly before the end of the school year.

"He's in a position to do a lot of damage," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

The unions are fighting back, running radio advertisements in Baltimore and Annapolis yesterday that accuse Ehrlich of putting the budget-crunching wishes of "outsiders" above the needs of city children. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is on their side, the ad says.

"All the governor can think about is union-busting because that is what this is," said Loretta Johnson, president of the paraprofessionals board of the 8,000-member Baltimore Teachers Union.

With an accumulated city schools deficit of at least $58 million and the possibility that paychecks could begin bouncing this month because of a cash-flow shortfall, city and state officials have been scrambling for more than a week to devise a bailout plan. The governor is expected to introduce legislation to revamp the school system's management structure as soon as today.

Ehrlich has never hidden his dislike of teachers unions, which endorsed Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 election and have shown little willingness to come to his side.

That animosity has led to an unusual partnership. In the past week, Ehrlich patched differences with former state senator and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, brought in as a volunteer financial adviser for city schools before resigning in frustration.

Ehrlich was disappointed in 1999 when Neall switched from Republican to Democrat. But standing side by side at news conferences, the two now agree that labor give-backs are an integral part of the solution. Neall's reputation as an antagonist to labor dates to his time as Republican Anne Arundel County executive in the early 1990s.

With Ehrlich staking out a stance hostile to labor, O'Malley has been thrust into a pro-union position. Just weeks ago, O'Malley was asking the Baltimore union to return some money in salary, and the mayor notes that the teachers union did not endorse him during his race in 1999. But in the radio advertisement, union leaders said they were joining with O'Malley in standing firm against the governor.

"How can we expect Baltimore's schools to improve if the governor and the outsiders he wants to put in charge only care about the balance sheet and not about our children, their teachers or the quality of our schools?" the ad says. "There is a better way. Mayor O'Malley and the Baltimore Teachers Union have a plan to stabilize Baltimore schools' finances without harming students' education - and without forcing teachers and school employees to once again foot the bill."

Unions and Democrats are longtime political partners, said Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. Republicans have had difficulty fostering such a relationship even as they have made education a top issue. Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization" during a meeting with state governors, a remark for which he later apologized.

But as labor membership wanes in Baltimore and other traditionally blue-collar cities, politicians who buck their wishes pay fewer and fewer consequences.

"It doesn't look like union-busting," Crenson said. Ehrlich "can say it's to help the kids. He can portray the teachers as selfish."

The perceived value of labor unions, said Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore, divides Democrats and Republicans on a fundamental level - and is linked to issues of race, class and gender, she said.

Because the issue is so volatile, Marriott said, Ehrlich should set it aside during current negotiations. "Don't try to take advantage of a situation to further your political ideology," said Marriott, a Democrat and chairwoman of the city House delegation. "That's wrong."

Ehrlich has softened his rhetoric since the crisis landed in his lap last week. "Do I want to break the union? No," he said during an interview on WBAL-Radio yesterday. But he said that "restrictive work rules make the system more expensive than it should be."

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