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Labor dispute becomes state-wide issue

April 01, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

When the Washington County Commissioners voted last month to decertify the union that represents 87 of its employees, they started a dispute that has sent reverberations through Maryland's labor and business communities.

"It's a state issue for reasons that are beyond the understanding of the County Commissioners," said Robert O.C. Worcester, president of the pro-business group Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

Worcester said the commissioners were well-intentioned in their effort to do away with organized labor. But their action, in effect, turned a local dispute into a broader issue that could affect public employers and their workers statewide, he said.

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The county's delegation to the General Assembly has come to the aid of the union, introducing legislation that would force the commissioners to restore collective bargaining rights to its employees.

If the legislation is successful - and Worcester believes there is a good chance it will be - it could lead to a larger union presence throughout the state, he said.

"This may have the opposite effect of what the commissioners wanted," Worcester said.

He isn't the only person keeping an eye on the issue and its broader ramifications.

"Any time anybody comes after the heart of the rights of a working person, everybody has to be concerned," said Ray McInerney, an AFSCME political coordinator based in Annapolis.

McInerney said personalities and specific issues probably make the county issue unique, and do not signify a trend toward local governments trying to break unions.

He said he has never seen anything like the commissioners' decision, which brought an end to a 27-year relationship between the county and AFSCME Local 2677.

McInerney said Worcester and others hold a misconception that organized labor is bad for business. He said that in states such as Ohio, labor and management cooperate to keep the economy thriving.

"This argument that it's bad for business has no validity," McInerney said.

Worcester said he could understand what the county was trying to do.

"Organized labor, especially AFSCME, needs to be curtailed in this state if we are ever going to get out of this (economic development) hole," he said.

Worcester said the commissioners made two mistakes in the timing of their action. First, it came during the legislative session, which gave the delegation the chance to get a bill passed to overrule the commissioners. The legislature's unofficial rules of local courtesy, in which matters specific to one county or city are rarely opposed, helps the bill's chances of passage, he said.

Worcester said the other piece of bad timing is the ongoing legal battle over Gov. Parris N. Glendening's executive order last year that gave collective bargaining to state employees. If the Washington County law passes, it could be used to defend Glendening's order by showing that the state sanctions collective bargaining, Worcester said.

He said he has generally found the county delegation to be "staunchly pro-business" in the past, but feels its members are reacting to a specific situation.

"Unfortunately, it may be a triumph of politics over good public policy," he said.

Glendening spokesman Raymond Feldmann said the governor would not comment on the matter because he considers it a local issue.

County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the commissioners did not think the delegation would get involved in the matter because they considered it a local issue. He says he believes a larger issue is developing - that of state lawmakers getting involved in local matters.

"I believe that other counties are looking at this," he said.

McInerney and other labor leaders have applauded the delegation's move. He said Worcester's argument that the law could expand organized labor was "laughable," especially since the legislature has passed local collective bargaining laws in the past.

"This has nothing to do with expanding collective bargaining rights for anybody," he said.

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