Montgomery unions speak out against Ervin's contracts negotiation bill
Labor leaders worry that county could low-ball employees
Montgomery County government employee unions Tuesday criticized a proposed change in county collective bargaining that they say would give the county too much leverage in negotiations.
The change, proposed by Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, would require an arbitrator, if called in to break an impasse, to first and foremost consider whether the county can afford to pay for negotiated union contracts.
A public hearing on the bill, which is supported by the entire council, was held Tuesday. The council's fiscal committee which includes Ervin, Councilwoman Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring and newly elected Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring also voted to recommend that the bill be adopted by the full council.
Following the committee meeting Tuesday, county union leader Gino Renne told Riemer, "You're going to be a one-termer, pal. Welcome to the big leagues."
Riemer's campaign was endorsed by Renne's union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, and other employee unions.
Ervin and other council members say the legislation is necessary to make sure that negotiated agreements are affordable. This year, the council rejected pay raises for employees and other items negotiated between County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and employee unions that carried a cost.
Renne accused Ervin, a former union organizer, and other council members of pandering to win approval from The Washington Post, a claim they denied.
"We want to believe Ms. Ervin when she claims to be a friend of labor," Renne said. "However, friends don't let friends drive off the road."
Renne was representing the Protect Your Montgomery Coalition, which is composed of the county government's three employee unions and other groups, including CASA de Maryland.
Council Vice President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac said Renne was being disrespectful by questioning the council's motives for supporting the change.
Renne said in an interview that Ervin's legislation could allow the county to overspend in other areas and then not have to fund employee salaries and benefits because they would say they were unaffordable.
The County Council is not involved in the negotiations process, but approves or denies portions of employee contracts that carry a cost.
Currently, if the county and its employee unions reach a contract impasse, an arbitrator can be called in. The arbitrator selects the entire final offer submitted by either the county or the union after considering six factors, including past contracts; the wages, benefits and employment conditions of other county employees; public employees in the region and state, as well as the county's private sector, and the county's ability to pay for changes. All factors are weighed equally.
Ervin's proposed bill would require an arbitrator to give the highest priority to the county's ability to pay. It also would require the arbitrator to consider other factors, such as the interest and welfare of county taxpayers.
In response to union criticism, Ervin said her bill solidifies the council's support for collective bargaining and binding arbitration, and provides some guidance for arbitrators if an impasse is reached.
John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF, Local 1664, AFL-CIO, said that the change would allow the county to low-ball employees during contract negotiations.
The legislation is not necessary, he said during a council committee meeting Tuesday.
The Montgomery County Taxpayers League spoke in favor of the bill, saying it prioritized affordability.
The bill was opposed by the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO and the NAACP.
Councilman Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said the General Assembly included a similar provision for the state's teachers union while he was serving as a delegate for District 15 about two years ago. The unions that spoke Tuesday did not oppose the state legislation, he said.
Rice said he was surprised by the union opposition, saying it was important for the county to be able to fund the contracts it negotiates.