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Maryland labor secretary may mediate dispute

February 19, 1997

Eugene Conti, secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, has been approached by Gov. Parris Glendening about the possibility of holding a mediation session between business and labor in Washington County.

Details haven't been firmed up yet, but Karen Napolitano, Conti's director of public information, said this week that the governor's office has talked to Conti about the possibility.

It would not be unusual duty for Conti, Napolitano said, because he's been active in a number of recent business-labor mediation efforts, including disputes between the Teamsters and the Giant and Safeway grocery stores and the United Food Workers and Rosecroft Raceway.

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Conti's role in all these was to function behind the scenes, Napolitano said, "serving as a facilitator."

Nor is Conti a stranger to Washington County. He was just here Feb. 7 to deliver 1,000 calculators to Bester Elementary School for use by local students.

The request for Conti's involvement came from Washington County Commissioner Ron Bowers, who, along with some members of the county board, has been embroiled in a dispute with the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce over how to run the Economic Development Commission, and over the the chamber's attitude toward labor.

Bowers has accused the chamber of being unwilling to recruit higher-paying companies of the type that have union labor, saying its members don't want wages here to go any higher than they are. But in a long interview with me earlier this week, Bowers drew a distinction between the chamber and the business community in general.

Bowers, who serves as chairman of Fort Ritchie's Local Redevelopment Authority, says he's got good businesspeople assisting in that effort. It's the chamber that's causing the problem, Bowers says, adding that when Charles Stroh was director and Walter Bell was president, there was plenty of tough back-and-forth talk, but everyone worked together. Not so now, he says.

The chamber's push for right-to-work legislation is wrong, Bowers says, because it makes every industrial prospect believe that if they move to Maryland, they'll be the target of a rancorous organizing effort. Bowers said both labor and management need to concentrate on marketing the state's strengths, an approach Napolitano said Conti could endorse.

"One of the things we have found in going through legislation is that when you use Total Quality (Management) principles and use the unions as components of that, you can be very, very effective," she said.

Bowers said this: "I want a mediator to come in and sit down in a TQM setting and show us how we can be a more competitive community," he said.

When would this happen?

"Sometime this spring. I don't want this to be a hastily-called summit. I want to come out of this with both sides agreeing that we must work together," he said.

And it's not just business he feels must change. Bowers, who previously told me he'd threatened to back right-to-work legislation unless labor changed some of its tactics, says labor needs to work on the way it does business.

"Labor (organizations) have to begin to market themselves for the positive attributes they have, and promote a fact that you've got a skilled work force here," he said.

But though he wants to get business and labor together, Bowers is not backing off his previous remarks.

"Many companies that would have located here didn't, because of the (chamber's) constant barrage of anti-union sentiment," Bowers said.

Asked if he could prove that assertion, Bowers said, "Let the chamber prove to me that they didn't."

Gary Wright, the chamber's president, said he wasn't sure why there's a need for someone from Annapolis to mediate a local meeting, but he said that if it is set up, the chamber would participate.

"We would make sure we were represented there," said Wright, adding that he still doesn't believe there's a problem locally between labor and business, nor does he feel business has tried to stop companies that pay high wages from locating here.

Personally, I've heard more grumbling from business leaders about new businesses that don't pay workers more than $8 an hour. I'm also not sure, if this is such a problem here, why somebody, including Bowers, hasn't addressed it before now. But hey, even if progress comes late, it's still progress and if such a meeting will lead the way, let's have the meeting.

Bowers' other comments, in response to my Feb. 9 column ("Bowers needs more than an enemies list") will be carried in my NewsPlus column of Sunday, Feb. 23.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page

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