Unions, progressive allies fight antilabor bill in Montgomery

Montgomery County Council members heard loud and clear from unions and their progressive allies that a bill tilting the field against labor in arbitration would not sneak through.

/By Dylan Shelton/ The pro-business, anti-union business interests on the Montgomery County Council faced fierce opposition from working people in last week’s (July 12) public hearing on a bill curtailing public unions’ collective bargaining rights.

On the surface, County Council President Nancy Floreen said she put forward Bill 24-16 to promote transparency and equity between the County and its unionized employees in contract negotiations and ground all arbitration in “fiscal reality.” In fact, the bill tilts negotiations sharply in one party’s favor ­– that of the County – and scapegoats workers for dwindling county resources due to tax breaks for the wealthy.

Bill 24-16 will make certain parts of union negotiations public, including the initial bargaining position of either side. As many testimonies on Tuesday pointed out, this sets the stage for either party to engage in overly dramatic rhetoric or the “us vs. them” argument to antagonize the public, a tactic traditionally used to undermine unions.

Unions will have no say in the appointment of a labor relations administrator; the choice is instead left to the opposing side – the county executive and council. Readers should note that a labor relations administrator doesn’t favor one side over the other, he or she simply certifies that the negotiation process complies with labor law. The bill will replace the current arbitration system with a three-person arbitration panel consisting of one union representative, one council representative and a retired judge.

This is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, Floreen proposes that the only neutral person on the deciding panel be a retired judge but omits to place any eligibility criteria. Thus a former family court or traffic violations judge may well be making the decisions that are currently arbitrated by an experienced labor negotiations specialist skilled in legal matters of worker pension, sick leave, compensation, safe working conditions, and other issues specific to collective bargaining. Not to mention judicial elections are increasingly a prime target of conservative networks’ campaign contributions to make the judiciary a tool of business and the wealthy against working people.

Second, the County will be choosing this single neutral arbitrator from now on and since the County is the opposing side, this is a clear conflict of interest that prejudices the proceedings in their favor. Third, the bill demands the arbitrators give more weight to county finances in any arbitration agreement, so workers pay the price for a tax base increasingly given away to the wealthy.

Finally, as many testimonies pointed out, this bill “solves” a non-existing problem. Only 20 negotiations went to arbitration since 1988. Perhaps the County’s complaint is that working Americans have won 16 of those 20 and therefore the playing field needs to be tilted to favor business and its handmaiden, the county government.

Progressive Maryland organizer Justin Vest’s testimony argued "We  believe this bill would change the rules governing collective bargaining in the County in such a way to unfairly favor employers at the expense of workers....As a statewide organization headquartered in Montgomery County, we know that legislation passed here is often a model for other jurisdictions and the Maryland General Assembly. For that reason, we are also concerned about the precedence this legislation could set for the state, ultimately limiting the voice of working families when it comes to workplace issues."

The bill originates from a 2010 County Council resolution to create a commission (of former county councilmembers and individuals handpicked by the council) to handle Montgomery County’s financial constraints in the wake of the 2008-2009 crises. Thus, Montgomery County Organizational Reform Commission’s final report published in 2011 is a list of austerity mandates recommended for the county in the same spirit as those foisted upon the entire United States and the European Union after the economic downturn. Leading policy institutions recognize that turning to austerity in response to a financial slowdown only generates catastrophic hardship for the working and middle class. Such policies are simply the business community’s response to a sudden drop in profits and craven desire to squeeze blood from a stone.

It is therefore unsurprising that County Council President Floreen’s legislation looks nearly identical to the model legislation circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is the notorious union-busting confederation of self-interested politicians and big business interests (including the Koch brothers) that one may expect to find in failed Republican presidential candidates Scott Walker’s Wisconsin or John Kasich’s Ohio. Yet the bill at the center of the debate on Tuesday in Rockville accomplishes many things in tandem with proposals being debated in Republican Right-to-Work states like Kansas. It is alarming to witness such legislation in one of the most progressive counties in Maryland and it will be used as an example for other jurisdictions.

Looking at a timeline of events, one can see the involvement of ALEC in Bill 24-16. In 2008 ALEC explicitly called for collective bargaining to be “publicized” along the lines of the Montgomery bill. Then the financial crisis hit and the country was following the doomed path of austerity that Big Business wanted rather than wealth being redistributed from their profits. Montgomery County was no exception and the Council’s Organizational Reform Committee called for more “efficiency” and cost-saving – classic euphemisms for austerity– in local operations, including a reform of collective bargaining.  In the time between that report and Floreen’s Bill 24-16, ALEC would once again call for “transparency” in public bargaining in 2013 and even lobby to abolish binding arbitration altogether in 2014.

The only two testimonies in favor of Bill 24-16 in Tuesday’s debate were members of the Organizational Reform Committee, Vernon Ricks and Scott Fosler. When asked by Councilman George Leventhal if ALEC held any influence in their final report in 2011, both answered no (but then neither was under oath).

The goal for Big Business is that the burden of recession be shifted onto the working class who must tighten their belts through lower wages and fewer benefits while management and career politicians get pay raises. Meanwhile unions have already put up with trimmed pay and deferred promises of pay increases by County Executive Isiah Leggett and Council President Floreen. 

The efforts of ALEC to plant anti-work legislation in one of the most progressive counties in Maryland must face by a loud and strong, “No!” by our community. No matter whether preconcert with ALEC is confirmed or not, the end goal of Bill 24-16 is a fundamental disruption in labor peace and workers’ rights within the county.  

Dylan Shelton is an activist in Montgomery County.