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Deadline nears in county's union flap

March 27, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - The Washington County Commissioners have until this afternoon to restore relations with the union that represented county roads workers and other employees or risk having state lawmakers do it for them.

The county's delegation, during a Wednesday afternoon meeting, agreed to ask the commissioners to reverse their March 18 decision to abolish collective bargaining rights for 90 county employees who are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2677.

"You don't just take a relationship that has been there for decades and in one snap of the fingers make it disappear," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who chairs the county delegation.

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The decision pleased labor leaders, many of whom attended the meeting, but angered one County Commissioner who accused the delegation of stepping beyond its responsibilities.

"This is just simply not their affair," said Commissioner James R. Wade, who called the delegation members "puppet politicians" who are catering to organized labor by meddling in local matters.

"My suggestion to (Donoghue) would be, if he would like to run for County Commissioner, I would be happy to pay for his filing fee," Wade said.

None of the commissioners attended the Annapolis meeting.

Wade said he stands behind his earlier decision, and expects that the other commissioners - who had voted 4-1 to decertify the union - will do the same.

"We're not going to let the delegation tell us what to do," Wade said.

But Donoghue and other legislators said there is nothing unusual about the delegation being involved in a county labor issue, citing the 1992 law it passed that formally permitted the county to recognize unions.

"I think the (commissioners') action was serious enough that we had to take some serious action," Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, said.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said the delegation needs to be involved because the labor strife could have a "corrosive" effect on the county's overall labor market and its economic development efforts.

"To me, we've got to address this issue, otherwise it's going to hurt our ability to attract businesses to the county," Poole said.

As for Wade's allegation that the delegation's action is politically motivated, Donoghue said, "I won't even lower myself to comment on that. As far as I'm concerned, the delegation is looking out for its constituents."

Repeated attempts to contact Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook for comment were unsuccessful.

Differing accounts

During the delegation's meeting, both union and county representatives presented their views on the matter and gave differing accounts on what led to the commissioners' decision.

Frank L. Kollman, a labor relations attorney representing the county, said the decision was the culmination of worsening relations between the county and the union. He said problems included excessive grievances and trouble reaching a contract agreement.

"It seemed to be entirely more difficult than it had been," he said.

Kollman said key to the situation was a recent effort by the Teamsters union to organize employees of the Washington County Sheriff's Department. It was decided earlier this month that the best way to avoid a growth in organized labor in county government was to revoke collective bargaining privileges for all employees, he said.

But union representatives said the Teamsters issue was an excuse for the commissioners to make a decision that had been in the works for months.

"They simply did not want to deal with us anymore," said William Proctor, a former business agent for AFSCME Council 67 and an attorney representing the union in this matter.

Proctor applauded the delegation's decision to ask the commissioners to change their minds.

"It gives the County Commissioners the chance to correct it on their own terms," he said.

Union officials said they would meet with the commissioners in Hagerstown this afternoon in an attempt to resolve the matter without the legislature's involvement.

"I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding. I think (the commissioners) have to open their minds and hear what we have to say," said Darlene Strock, president of AFSCME Council 67 and a City of Hagerstown employee.

If the meeting does not end with an agreement, the delegation will meet in Annapolis to decide if it will settle the matter with legislation that requires the commissioners to bargain with the union - a move several lawmakers have said they favor.

Wade argued that such action would only hurt the commissioners - who would have to deal with negotiations, grievances and the rest of the aftermath - and be an easy way out for the delegation.

"They're just nothing but a bunch of cowards," Wade said.

But Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who cast the lone vote against decertification, said while it is unfortunate the legislature needs to become involved, he sees nothing wrong with the intervention.

"I think they are acting appropriately," said Bowers, a Mack Trucks worker who is a member of the United Auto Workers.

If the delegation decides to pursue legislation, it faces a tight deadline. The legislative session ends April 7 and any new legislation would require either suspension of the General Assembly's rules or an amendment to an existing bill.

Some delegation members believe the county and the union, which represents County Commuter, landfill and roads employees, can reach an agreement today.

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