Union, O'Malley administration at odds

At issue is an effort to expand city workers' power to challenge lengthy suspensions


An attempt to expand the power of municipal employees to challenge lengthy disciplinary suspensions is meeting stiff resistance from Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, setting up a possible showdown in the City Council.

City Union of Baltimore, which represents about 3,000 of some 15,000 municipal employees, is pushing a change to city law that would let those who are suspended for 30 days or more file a formal grievance and seek independent arbitration.

"What's the opposition to having a neutral, unbiased party review a case?" asked Brenda J. Clayburn, the union president.

Under a city charter provision that dates to 1918, municipal employees who are suspended for more than 30 days must challenge the city through the Civil Service Commission. Employees who are suspended for shorter periods may file a grievance and seek arbitration - a process that some unions feel offers a more fair review.

In May, Councilman Robert W. Curran introduced a charter amendment to allow any employee, regardless of the length of suspension, to chose arbitration. That bill has languished.

City labor officials said they recently made adjustments to the Civil Service Commission disciplinary procedures that would make the process more fair. Those changes were negotiated with a larger union, Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the city has said that if the charter amendment is approved, the negotiated changes will be jeopardized.

Union leaders interpret that stance as a threat and an attempt to divide the labor groups. Labor Commissioner Sean Malone said he believes the changes would be moot if the amendment is enacted. He said the unions should give the new procedures a chance before seeking the amendment.

"It's our belief that the process should be given an opportunity to take effect before we go this next step, which is having an arbiter," Malone said. "If union leaders come back to us in a year and say these changes have not improved the situation, I think the City Council should take another look."

The city solicitor's office, meanwhile, has ruled that the charter amendment is illegal, which would make its passage in the council difficult. Under the tight timeline for a charter amendment, the measure must be approved by Aug. 14 if it is to appear on the ballot this year.

"I didn't think there was going to be as much consternation" on the bill, Curran said. "I don't want to put a divide between union brothers and sisters."


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