Md. high court backs Ehrlich in labor ruling

Pacts negotiated at end of Glendening term voided

`11th-hour political power play'

Tens of thousands are left to renegotiate contracts

August 24, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court handed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a convincing victory yesterday in his effort to overturn labor pacts with state employees negotiated during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's final days in office.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals decided that because Glendening did not sign the agreements himself or issue a public pronouncement that they had been completed, the contracts are not considered ratified under state law.

The ruling means that tens of thousands of state employees covered under collective bargaining laws are working without contracts and that previously brokered agreements over working conditions, staffing levels, and health and safety matters are no longer valid.

"It's dysfunctional," said Joel Smith, an attorney representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest bargaining group in state government. "The employees and managers spent many hours and days developing mutually agreed to procedures for governance."

The court decision has no financial impact. An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge ruled last fall that a 2 percent pay increase approved by Glendening was not binding on the incoming governor, meaning taxpayers did not have to spend the $100 million for raises. The pay issue was not the subject of appeal.

Still, the appeals court decision means Republican Ehrlich's administration has the opportunity to alter the relationship between employees and managers in state government more significantly than anticipated.

Glendening, a Democrat, made a priority of extending bargaining rights to state employees, and the court case has been considered an important test of a law passed in 1999.

"I don't think they want any part of it [the collective bargaining process]," House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said of the Ehrlich administration. "Labor doesn't support them, and they don't support labor."

Ehrlich called the ruling a "total and complete victory" but said he was not bent on quashing labor. "Just treat [the workers] fairly, and this becomes less relevant," he said.

The voided contracts were finalized in December 2002, after Ehrlich was elected but before he was sworn in, when the state was facing revenue shortfalls and contemplating budget cuts. Many political observers viewed the pay raises as a parting gift from a liberal governor that the state could not afford.

"It was an 11th-hour political power play that left a bad taste in everyone's mouth," Ehrlich said yesterday.

Both sides claimed victory last fall, when Judge Michael E. Loney determined that the union contracts were valid but found that a departing governor cannot compel spending by his or her incoming replacement.

Ehrlich appealed the finding that the contracts were good, and the appeals court ruled in his favor yesterday. The signature of Glendening's chief of staff, Gene Lynch, was not good enough, the judges said.

The memorandums of understanding "that embody collective bargaining agreements can affect the salaries or fringe benefits of 80,000 or more state employees. They can have enormous fiscal implications for the state," the court wrote.

"By requiring gubernatorial ratification ... the General Assembly no doubt wanted to make certain that the governor not only fully understood the terms and conditions of the agreement but expressed his/her approval in an unmistakable and public manner," the judges said. "Nothing of that kind occurred here."

In a deposition, Glendening said he was briefed on the contract talks and had told top aides to complete the deal.

Without the 2002 contract in place, employee representatives will have to renegotiate important provisions over caseloads, safety, and grievance and communication procedures, said Sue Esty, an AFSCME lobbyist.

Since any contract builds on the previous pact, the decision could be significant, she said.

"We believe the governor has a moral obligation to recognize the hard work that was done by both the managers and employees over many months of negotiations," Esty said. "This decision doesn't change the law: He is required to go to the table with us and negotiate in good faith."

It is up to the Ehrlich administration, said Smith, the AFSCME attorney, to demonstrate that it wants good relations with state employees.

"The card has been dealt to them," he said. "They can show they are equal to the mettle, or they can disappoint us all."

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