Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has asked Council President Nancy Floreen to postpone consideration of her proposal to give more power to county officials in their dealings with labor unions.
Floreen (D-At Large) described the bill, which she introduced last month on a fast-track basis, as an attempt to bring “balance” to negotiations with the unions representing county police, fire and general employees. It would open portions of the traditionally private process to the public and permit use of neutral third parties without bargaining experience.
The measure also provides for appointment of a three-person panel, rather than a single professional arbitrator, to intervene if talks hit an impasse. The arbitrator would be teamed with a person appointed by the county executive and a retired judge to be mutually agreed upon by the union and the executive.
Versions of this system are in place in other states and localities, including Iowa and Alaska.
Labor leaders denounced the bill as a blatant attempt to punish unions for the county’s failure to win favorable decisions from arbitrators. Unions have prevailed in 16 of 20 arbitrations since 1988.
Union officials also charge that the provisions mirror model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of state legislators and corporate executives funded in part by conservative billionaires Charles and Robert Koch.
But those assertions are unfounded. A review of ALEC model legislation, some of which has been adopted by other states, shows that it is far more hostile to public-sector unions than anything in Floreen’s bill. One ALEC measure would open all collective-bargaining sessions and related documents to the public. Another calls for a total repeal of laws that impose binding arbitration in public-sector bargaining.
Still, Leggett (D) wrote to Floreen last week asking her to stand down, noting that while he supported the general idea, the bill raised “many complex issues” and could produce unintended consequences without more careful deliberation.
In an interview Thursday, Leggett said that he is due to start negotiations on new contracts this fall, and that controversy over the bill would probably hinder talks.
“It’s too big and too complicated and the timing is not right,” Leggett said.
Floreen, perhaps the council’s most pro-business member and a possible candidate for county executive in 2018, was noncommittal when asked about Leggett’s request. She did acknowledge that she faced an uphill climb with union leaders and council colleagues.
“We shall see. They’re not very enthusiastic about this,” she said of union officials. Of the council, she said: “I don't know if the votes are there .”
Many of the particulars of Floreen’s bill are adopted from the recommendations of a 2011 county commission on government reform.
Her bill’s prospects began to wobble after a raucous July 12 public hearing featuring testimony from union leaders and rank-and-file. Gino Renne, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994, which represents 6,800 mostly non-uniformed county employees, said changes in the law “will have devastating consequences on the integrity of collective bargaining and our membership.”
Immediately after the hearing, Floreen’s sole co-sponsor for the measure, Council member Craig Rice (D-Germantown), removed his name from the bill. He said he wants a new measure that takes union concerns into account.
Leggett said he did not understand why Floreen introduced the bill on an “expedited” basis. Under council rules, expedited legislation takes effect immediately after being signed into law. It also requires six of nine council member votes for passage.
Floreen said she wanted Leggett to be able to conduct the next round of talks under the auspices of the new bill.
The county executive is responsible for negotiating labor agreements. Over the past six years of Leggett’s administration, wages for eligible police, fire and general employees have grown between 25.4 and 31.5 percent, according to a council staff analysis. Leggett said he has sometimes agreed to generous financial packages to avoid risking costlier settlements in arbitration. Under state law, the arbitrator must adopt the final offer of one of the parties in its entirety — not find common ground.
The council has the final say over labor contracts as part of its annual budget deliberations, but usually concurs with terms presented by Leggett. This spring, however, Floreen led the council in trimming negotiated increases, eliminating a 3.5 percent longevity increase that unions agreed to defer during the recession. Unionized workers still received increases averaging 4.5 percent.
Asked why she would engage in such a difficult fight to change the law if final power rested with the council, Floreen said that making arbitration less attractive for unions would strengthen the county executive’s hand.
“It would be much better for [the county executive] to work it out rather than the council getting involved in rearranging the deck chairs, which aggravates everybody,” she said.