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Correctional officers sign petition to ban union leader from MCTC

72 employees are asking that Steve Berger apologize for comments he allegedly made

March 24, 2011|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Maryland Correctional Training Center is shown in this file photo. Correctional officers at the Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown have filed a petition asking that a union leader be banned from the prison for allegedly threatening them during a meeting at the facility on March 11.
Herald-Mail file photo

Correctional officers at the Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown have filed a petition asking that a union leader be banned from the prison for allegedly threatening them during a meeting at the facility on March 11.

MCTC Sgt. Charles Wade, a union member, said the petition was sent Wednesday afternoon via certified mail to Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in Baltimore.

The petition was signed by 72 correctional officers and staff members who are asking that Steve Berger, AFSCME's representative at MCTC, be prohibited from entering the prison and that he apologize for comments he allegedly made to the officers that they claimed were berating and threatening.

"I have no issue with the union — just that guy," Wade said during a telephone interview about the incident. "The petition asks basically that we don't want Steve Berger to come in and talk to us that way. We're asking for an apology. He was in the wrong."

Berger, who was a correctional officer at the prison before he retired and became an AFSCME representative, said Thursday that he didn't know about the petition. He referred questions to the AFSCME office in Baltimore.

AFSCME officials did not return several phone calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Berger visited the prison March 11 to talk to employees who worked the 4 p.m.- to-midnight shift about the state's plan to increase the minimum time that officers have to serve before they can retire from 20 to 25 years, according to written documents filed by prison employees.

The five-page petition states that during Berger's speech, "no one interrupted him or intruded on his duties at any point in time. After Mr. Berger gave his presentation he invited all who were listening to come and sign a petition that was to be sent to Baltimore. When none arose to sign his petition Mr. Berger asked if anyone had any questions or concerns."

When some of the officers asked why they would have to start paying union dues in July, even though they weren't members of the union, the petition alleges that Berger said he couldn't hear the questions and began to swear at the officers.

Correctional Officer 2 David Glaze said Berger challenged him to fight when he openly opposed having to pay union dues.

"He wasn't right up in my face, but he was close enough that the intent was there," Glaze said. "Even if I was in the union, I wouldn't want him representing us."

Glaze said Berger told him to leave the building if he didn't support the union.

"I said, 'Buddy, I work here. You can leave.'"

Berger left after an expletive-ridden tirade during which he said he could take any one of the officers in a fight, Glaze alleged.

"We didn't do anything to irritate or provoke him," said Sgt. William Penner, who is not affiliated with the union. "Every day I go into that prison I expect to hear vulgar language. I expect to get threatened. I just don't expect that from someone who's supposed to be protecting me."

Sgt. Brian Kelley, who isn't a union member, said he was surprised by Berger's behavior.

"I was angered toward Mr. Berger and his actions," Kelley said. "The issue that happened was completely wrong. We want Mr. Berger and AFSCME to know  ... that this isn't going to be tolerated. It's not right."

Investigation sought

Correctional Officer 2 Travis Calder said the petition started to circulate among prison employees the day after Berger's visit.

"No matter what questions we asked, we got the same response — being cursed at and being yelled at and being threatened," Calder said.

Calder, who doesn't belong to the union, said he agreed with state Sen. Christopher Shank's decision to ask Corrections Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer to launch an investigation into the matter.

Shank, upon hearing about the incident from correctional officers, sent a letter dated March 14 asking that Stouffer look into Berger's alleged conduct.

"Why not have an investigation if there's nothing to hide? There were 80 witnesses there to ask what happened," Calder said.

Erin Julius, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in an email that Stouffer had received Shank's request.

"(Stouffer) has asked the union to look into the situation," Julius said. "Beyond that, we have no comment."

'Service fees'

Through a 2009 state law called "The Fair Share Act," collective bargaining organizations won the right to charge "service fees" for contracts they negotiate, even if employees covered under the contracts don't belong to the bargaining organizations.

The tentative contract agreement for state employees includes a section labeled "service fee," which states that employees covered under the contract will be charged a fee that will "not exceed the amount of dues uniformly required of AFSCME members."

The correctional officers said they have been told the fees will amount to about $400 per year.

The correctional officers interviewed for this story said their comments were not the opinion of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. All five of them signed the petition.

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