Labor decision took months

April 06, 1997


Staff Writer

Washington County Commissioners first discussed eliminating collective bargaining rights for county employees in closed sessions last year, according to county officials.

The discussions came well before County Commissioners' decision to rescind collective bargaining March 18. The decision resulted in a protest by AFSCME Local 2677, which represents 87 county roads, landfill and bus workers, and sparked a controversy ending with the state legislature voting overwhelmingly for a bill restoring collective bargaining.

County Attorney Richard Douglas and County Administrator Rodney Shoop confirmed Friday that Washington County Commissioners discussed the possibility of rescinding collective bargaining after Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades told the commissioners of his concerns about an attempt by the Teamsters to organize the Sheriff's Department last year.


Douglas said after Mades came to the commissioners, the commissioners asked for options on how to react to the Teamsters.

Douglas said he wasn't a labor expert, and suggested the commissioners hire Baltimore-based labor lawyer Frank Kollman to provide advice. Kollman charges roughly $175 an hour, Douglas said. Douglas said he thought Kollman and his firm have performed about $10,000 to $15,000 in services for the county, although, according to Kollman, only about a third of his time has been spent on the union issue.

Kollman told commissioners in November they had the ability to rescind collective bargaining, Douglas said.

At the same time that commissioners were discussing the situation at the Sheriff's Department, negotiations with AFSCME were underway.

Still a chance

Douglas said the commissioners decided at a closed Jan. 14 meeting not to rescind collective bargaining and to continue negotiating a new contract with AFSCME. Douglas said commissioners didn't want to take the action while there was still a chance of reaching an agreement.

Shoop said he hadn't plotted to get rid of unions in the county, and noted he's a former active member of the Airline Pilots Association union.

"The goal has always been to get a contract," Shoop said. "It has always been my goal throughout the whole process to treat every employee in the county fairly and equally."

Shoop emphasized that a number of other options were also discussed and considered, including unilaterally imposing the county's offer and revising the county's collective bargaining resolution. Kollman wrote a revision to the resolution but it was never used.

Deteriorating relations

Relations between the union and the county had deteriorated last year.

The previous contract expired July 1, 1996, without agreement on a new contract. Kirkwood and other AFSCME members went to a commissioners meeting in Boonsboro July 23, 1996, and described labor relations as "futile at best."

At first, the union wasn't asking for pay raises, Kirkwood said. Only after other county employees received raises and bonuses in December did the union ask for the same raises, she said.

Negotiations dragged on - each side blaming the other for the slow progress - with issues large and small between the two sides.

The county wanted to eliminate union members' longevity pay, which maxed out at 1 percent of a workers' income after 21 years of service, because other county employees didn't receive it.

Also, the county demanded that three holidays - Maryland Day, Columbus Day and Presidents' Day - be converted into personal days.

Union negotiator Shirley Kirkwood said she would accept changing the holidays, except for Presidents' Day. The union members, against Kirkwood's advice, wanted to keep President's Day because George Washington is the county's namesake, she said.

Shoop said the county wanted to be able to keep bus, landfill and other services operating on the minor holidays.

At the final negotiating session in March, Kirkwood and county officials dispute what occured.

The county offered the union the same pay and bonuses that others received - a $500 increase in salary, a $500 bonus and a 2 percent salary increase. The county still required that the three holidays become personal days, and would allow workers to keep the longevity pay that they had accrued but wouldn't give them additional longevity pay in the future.

County officials say that Kirkwood declared that she wouldn't accept the offer, said there was an impasse, and said she would write a letter to the county to that effect.

Kirkwood denies that she declared an impasse and said she scheduled a ratification vote on the offer for March 25.

Commissioners then received a copy of a March 10 letter from Teamsters Local 103 petitioning for a union election at the Washington County Sheriff's Department. The letter helped trigger the commissioners' action, Douglas said.

Impasse in negotiations

On March 18, commissioners decided to rescind collective bargaining, citing an impasse in negotiations with AFSCME and attempts by unions to organize other county departments.

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