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Workers protest county's union stand

March 26, 1997

BRENDAN KIRBY

and JULIE E. GREENE

Staff Writers

About 200 union workers marched through downtown Hagerstown Tuesday afternoon to protest the Washington County Commissioners' decision to revoke collective bargaining rights for about 90 county employees.

Carrying signs bearing legends such as "You Will Never Take the Union out of Me," and "You Can Take my Truck, my Dog but Not my Union," the protesters sang "Solidarity Forever" as they marched down Potomac Street.

Inside City Hall, where the commissioners were meeting with city officials, the noise prompted City Water Department Manager Gene Walzl to close a window.

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Steelworkers, postal employees, city workers and other union members were on hand to express support for County Commuter, landfill and roads employees, who lost collective bargaining rights on March 18.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, a Mack Trucks employee who is a member of the United Auto Workers union, was the sole dissenter in the 4-1 vote to revoke collective bargaining rights for county employees who belonged to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Speakers shouting from bullhorns implored drivers to honk, and each time one did, the crowd roared its approval.

Pearl Plasterer, a United Steelworkers of America member who works at Good Humor/Breyer's, said the move could cost the County Commissioners their jobs.

"I hope to get these guys their union back and vote the County Commissioners out," she said. "It's got to be long-term. We have to keep the pressure up."

Landfill worker Scott Snow, a member of AFSCME Local 2677, said the commissioners overstepped their bounds.

"I'm confident because the commissioners were wrong to start with," he said. "The most important and best part of our union is we can vote in new bosses."

Darlene Strock, president of AFSCME Council 67, said she was "tickled to death" by the turnout.

"I think this county has failed to realize how strong the union still is here," she said.

After the meeting between the commissioners and city officials broke up, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he wasn't aware of the picketing. "We just need to focus on the issues of the county," he said.

Snook said County Attorney Richard Douglas will attend an 11:30 a.m. meeting in Annapolis today with union officials and Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

Hagerstown city employee David Scriever, treasurer and past president of AFSCME Local 1540, said it was important for other unions to show solidarity with county workers.

Mayor Steven T. Sager agreed with Scriever's show of support. Told after the meeting that city employees were among those picketing, Sager replied, "They should be."

Picketing is their right, and city officials support their employees, their unions and their show of support for another local union, Sager said.

"Frankly, we were surprised to the point of being stunned" to learn of the commissioners' vote to revoke collective bargaining rights, he said.

City officials have no intention of revoking collective bargaining rights, Sager said. City officials are negotiating a new contract with the city's police union.

Among those picketing was City Council candidate Larry Vaughn, a union member and former Mack Trucks worker. Unions are the key to high-paying jobs and security, he said.

"The thing we've got to learn in this country is to stand together," he said. "The County Commissioners have plenty of money. They couldn't care less about working people."

George Gisin, a representative of AFSCME Council 67, said the car horns and marchers proved that the union has support.

"It certainly sends a message. I don't think they realized the amount of support the union has generated," he said. "It's a cold day, it's windy, it's dinner time. People have better things to do. And yet, you see this turnout."

The protesters marched down Potomac Street onto East Franklin Street and demonstrated for about five minutes outside City Hall before continuing to the Washington County Administration building at the corner of Washington and Jonathan streets. The group then marched back to City Hall.

In the evening, a handful of protesters showed up at Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater, where the Washington County Board of Education was presenting its budget to the commissioners.

Bowers said Tuesday evening that he saw the protest as both a right and a show of solidarity by the "world of labor" for county employees.

Bowers said he feels the move to eliminate employees' collective bargaining rights was premature, since the commissioners didn't wait for a vote from the rank and file.

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