Montgomery unions take labor fight to County Council

April 25, 2011

Minutes after a judge dismissed a union lawsuit against Montgomery County on Monday, the labor leader who had filed it walked out of the Rockville courthouse and across the street to make his case to the County Council, which controls spending in the county.

Sitting in the front row of a hearing room — and at times alongside the government staff tasked with briefing council members — Gino Renne, head of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, urged council members to reject County Executive Isiah Leggett’s proposal for cutting county employee health and retirement benefits and instead support the union’s approach.

Leggett disregarded Renne’s proposals — and a county arbitrator’s ruling that he must adhere to them — when he proposed a $4.35 billion budget last month, touching off a fierce fight over labor rights and fiscal responsibility in the liberal-leaning county.

A labor arbitrator had ruled for Renne and his union last month, saying Renne’s proposals had to be included in Leggett’s budget. When Leggett didn’t do so, the union sued.

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg dismissed the suit, saying public employees had brought the matter to court too soon and must first make their case before a county labor relations administrator.

Across the street, Renne appeared to get a sympathetic hearing Monday from some key council members, including President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chastised the council’s staff director for what she called “editorializing” in a briefing outlining soaring compensation costs for county employees.

Ervin called for finding a way to control health-care costs rather than shifting millions of dollars in those costs to employees, a position more in line with the union than with Leggett, who has been assailed by union leaders.

Ervin also proposed a larger role for herself in the dispute, saying that she wanted the council to appoint her to participate in negotiations between the union and the Leggett administration.

Such negotiations could be triggered soon under provisions of county labor law. Last year, a council staff attorney attended the talks. But Ervin wants a more activist role for the council.

“I can speak on behalf of the council,” Ervin said. “The unions don’t mind my participation because they don’t think I’m coming in with a bias, which could be helpful.”

Ervin also said that the court’s dismissal of the lawsuit can be viewed in a positive light for the unions.

Union lawyers argued that Leggett broke the law by disregarding the results of the collective bargaining process when he proposed a budget last month. But Leggett said the county’s charter gives him virtually unfettered authority to craft a spending proposal.

In explaining his decision Monday morning, Greenberg said it was clear to him that Leggett had engaged in a “prohibited practice” under county labor law. But Greenberg said the case was not at the point where he could decide the larger question of whether the county statute conflicts with the county charter.

“That was a win for them,” Ervin said. “[The judge] gave them life to live another day: ‘Go follow your process all the way through.’ I don’t see that as a loss.”

Union lawyer Carey Butsavage said he filed a formal appeal on Monday to a county labor relations administrator.

“The county is bound and determined to undertake a full-scale campaign to undermine and discredit the entire system of labor relations established by the County Collective Bargaining law,” Butsavage wrote.

The union “seeks an order requiring the County Executive to submit the Arbitrator’s Award to the County Council immediately.”

Leggett proposed shrinking the county’s contribution to employee health premiums from 80 to 70  percent. Officials said that and other health-care changes would would save about $18 million as the county tries to close a $300 million budget gap.

But that shift would cost employees from $370 to $3,700 more each year, depending on their plan, county officials said.

During contract negotiations with Leggett, Renne proposed shifting union members to a United Healthcare HMO, which would save about $2 million in fiscal 2012 and $3.4 million in 2016, county officials said.

He also proposed an aggressive effort to manage costs by encouraging workers to be more health-conscious and taking a variety of other measures, although county budget officials said the precise dollar savings associated with that effort remains unclear.

“You want to do wellness? I’m all for that. But how much to do you save with that, and when do you save it?” Leggett said.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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