Md. union leaders watching Wisconsin labor battle

Planned rally in Annapolis to support that state's workers; tea party backs their governor

February 21, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland public-sector unions want to send a message to their counterparts in Wisconsin: "We're with you."

Several of the largest Maryland state employee groups plan to rally in Annapolis on Tuesday to show solidarity with employees in Wisconsin, who are protesting the effort by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to take away collective-bargaining rights from public-sector unions.

Among the many signs draped over a railing in the rotunda of the Wisconsin state capitol is a yellow bedsheet with the words, "Baltimore is here with you."

While the efforts of Walker and Wisconsin's Republican state legislature would be unlikely to find much legislative support in deeply Democratic Maryland, union leaders here say it reflects a rising national trend against government employee unions.

"There are sharp attacks on public workers in a number of states," said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. He pointed to layoffs, pay cuts and benefit reductions occurring in states across the country.

"Wisconsin just happens to be very blatant about what it is doing," he said.

Officials with Baltimore's police and fire unions drew parallels between the rancor in the Midwest and the acrimony here over the attempt by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to shore up the pension system by scaling back benefits.

Mason said the lingering effects of the national recession and Republican gains nationally in November have combined to create a poisonous atmosphere for unions. The Maryland-DC AFL-CIO includes more than 350,000 members.

"People are confused. Everybody is suffering," Mason said. "But workers should not be blamed for the economic crisis. These are systemic problems."

Maryland lawmakers are weighing pension reforms this year likely to anger public-employee unions. A rally to call attention to that is planned for March. And state Sen. Allan Kittleman has introduced a bill that would break ties between employers and unions.

The Annapolis rally on Tuesday has been organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO. Representatives from the state's largest teachers group, the Maryland State Education Association, also plan to attend.

Meeting them in Annapolis will be tea partiers from across the state, said Ann Corcoran, author of the Potomac Tea Party Report blog.

"We support Governor Walker," said Corcoran, a member of a Hagerstown tea party group. "We feel that we need to show that taxpayers are concerned, too. Everybody's going to have to give a little, including unions. We applaud Governor Walker for realizing that."

Wisconsin faces a budget deficit estimated at about $3.6 billion in the next few years. Maryland also has fiscal challenges; Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and the state legislature are working to close a gap thought to be as high as $1.6 billion.

But the political dynamic in the two states is very different, union leaders and lawmakers in Maryland say.

Unions in Maryland have increased their reach under O'Malley. He backed a bill to enable child care workers to organize and supports legislation this year to organize home health care workers. He also shaped a policy to allow unions to collect service fees from nonmembers.

This month, the 23,000 members of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME ratified a three-year contract that allows for raises if state revenues increase. The deal also contains a $750 bonus this year, and for the first time in three years guarantees that workers will not be furloughed.

Patrick Moran, president of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME, said the state "sets an example" of how public unions and administration officials can work together."

"Although you can have your disagreements on certain issues, you can resolve them," Moran said. "Maryland faces a budget crisis, but we've been able to sit down at a table and work through those problems in a respectful manner. Everyone [is] still working. The Earth has not erupted into chaos."

By contrast, he said, what's going on in Wisconsin is "ideological banter, pure and simple."

Notwithstanding the largely genial tone in Maryland, "we take the gloves off and do battle," said David Helfman, executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, which has 71,000 members. Helfman said members were prepared to fight any attempts to scale back pensions and benefits. "We will look to protect what we have."

He said Wisconsin "serves as a wake-up call to unions across the country to remain politically active and vigilant."

Kittleman's bill would prohibit employers from requiring a worker to join a union or pay union fees. The Howard County Republican said his bill is "about giving employers and employees more freedom."

The bill has not had a hearing yet, and is likely to be rejected by a Democratic General Assembly typically supportive of union power.

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