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City union workers demand contract

September 25, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Shouting "No contract, no peace," about 70 union members protested Tuesday outside Hagerstown City Hall with the stated intention of drawing attention to morale problems and union negotiations.

The four unions representing about 300 of the City of Hagerstown's 460 workers are working without contracts. Some employees have been without a contract for more than a year.

"What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now," the workers chanted.

Union employees of Washington County government, Allegheny Energy and other employers participated in the protest as a show of support.

After marching and holding signs outside City Hall for about an hour, many of the workers attended the 7 p.m. City Council meeting. The council room was packed, and some people stood in the hallway.

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During the council meeting, Councilman Lewis Metzner criticized union tactics, particularly public criticism of the negotiations by union representatives.

He pointed out that the unions had rejected a city offer to carry out negotiations in public.

If the union wants to argue the issues in "the court of public opinion," the council could do so as well, he said.

At a time when the national economy is "flat," the public might be interested to know that AFSCME has asked the city to give the police employees it represents a 16 percent cost-of-living increase over a four-year period, Metzner said.

The protest was organized by Allegheny Energy workers and the Central Maryland AFL-CIO Labor Council, which has approximately 8,000 members in Washington County and approximately 4,000 members in Frederick County, Md.

Labor Council President Woody McNemar said at least 100 workers would take part in next month's protest unless the council does something about the city's morale problem.

"We will keep harassing them like this," he said.

About 35 to 40 city workers attended last month's council meeting, during which James Bestpitch, who represents the police officers union and members of AFSCME 1540, said city employees were protesting because of a morale problem.

He said the action last month and this month were unrelated to contract negotiations.

Among the protesters Tuesday were the husband and son of Councilwoman Penny May Nigh, who are both union employees. Neither works for the city.

"I am supporting my union brothers," her husband, Robert Nigh, said.

Her son, Lance Nigh, an Allegheny Energy employee, is the president of the local chapter of the Utility Workers Union of America. He and other employees were protesting because the city is leaving union employees in "limbo" because they don't have a contract.

"It is our right to protest. The councilwoman (Nigh) knows where I stand," Lance Nigh said.

He said his mother shares the protesters' frustration with the employee negotiations.

Lance Nigh also spoke during the council meeting, saying the council's top priority should be negotiating the contracts.

In response to a question by Metzner, Lance Nigh said "by no means should the public be involved in the negotiations."

"Aren't you making them (the public) involved by coming here tonight and picketing?" Metzner asked. He said he has heard false rumors about what the city is or is not going to do in negotiations.

"I wish you would talk to us instead of yelling at us," he said.

"We do not have time to go to the council meetings. We are out there fighting crime," Hagerstown City Police Officer Wayne Hose, president of the police employees union, later told the council.

During the protest, copies of a letter written by Hose were made available.

"Give your two cents worth to the city," Hose said. "We need your support so this process does not continue to drag on. When paying your City Light or water bill, pay the amount less two pennies. Then tape two pennies to your bill. That way, everyone can give the city their two cents worth."

Hose said he thought the penny protest idea might be a way to speed up the negotiations.

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