Union Influence Sways Montgomery Budget Talks

Marc Zifcak, left, talks with union leader Walter Bader during a county council meeting.
Marc Zifcak, left, talks with union leader Walter Bader during a county council meeting. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

As Montgomery County's elected officials prepare this week to raise taxes and trim services to close a projected $300 million budget shortfall, most are reluctant to roll back raises negotiated by powerful union leaders.

Over the past two decades, the influence of the unions representing public employees in the county has grown dramatically. Former and current government officials say Montgomery's bargaining system -- along with labor's political clout -- gives workers as strong a voice, if not stronger, than taxpayers in budget talks.

For years, union leaders Gino Renne, Walter Bader and John J. Sparks have been a driving force behind improving working conditions for Montgomery's bus drivers, social workers, police officers, firefighters and other employees. Recent labor contracts provide most workers with salary increases of 26 to 29 percent over three years, including 8 percent this fiscal year for most general government workers.

Their impact goes beyond salary negotiations: The three have had a hand in defining the role of library volunteers, choosing the lawyers the county hires to negotiate contracts, organizing lifeguards and leaf collectors and enhancing labor's role in overseeing a $3 billion retirement system.

The County Council has the final say in approving contracts negotiated by the county executive but rarely exercises its power as a backstop.

"Although you may know in your heart that the only way to deal with this particular deficit is to broach the union contracts, it is difficult for politicians who wish to be reelected to vote against the union contracts because the unions can rise up and defeat you," said former council member Nancy Dacek, who was defeated after three terms by a union-backed rival.

Personnel costs will account for 80 percent of spending in fiscal 2009. Members of Renne's Municipal and County Government Employee Organization are slated to receive raises of 4.5 percent in July; in addition, most would continue to receive 3.5 percent annual step increases. General government workers are scheduled to receive general pay raises of 4 percent in the District and 4.5 percent on average in Fairfax County.

Council members Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) last week recommended reducing raises by two percentage points, in part to offset the property tax increase proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). But that idea has not gained traction with their colleagues.

"We do not have to balance this budget on the backs of working people," council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) told the hundreds of union members who lined up to defend their contracts at a public hearing last week.

Union leaders add that talk of a fiscal crisis is overblown and that raises are necessary to attract talent to deliver services residents have come to expect.

"We come to work, we serve the public and we expect to receive what we bargained for in good faith," Renne said.

In a heavily Democratic county, the unions' strength is part politics, part personality and part policy. Human Resources director Joseph Adler, who has worked at the state level, said the premise of collective bargaining is that both sides come to the table as equals.

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