MONTGOMERY COUNTY’S government unions are in retreat. Arrogant, coddled for years by politicians and possessed of a swollen sense of entitlement, they won a decade’s worth of huge increases in wages and benefits, along with highly favorable work rules that invited abuses, tied the hands of agencies and drained public coffers. All that proved unsustainable and in some instances embarrassing to the county. Now the tide is turning.
A number of recent steps by the County Council, unthinkable just a year or two ago, are milestones in the unions’ rapidly shrinking influence. In one instance, the council ditched rules that enabled police officers to haggle over routine management directives — even a requirement that officers check their county e-mail. In another, the council put an end to a long-running scam whereby cops with minor injuries were allowed to retire with the same generous (and untaxed) benefits afforded to officers with major disabilities.
At the same time, elected officials have begun to restore some balance to a collective bargaining system in which the deck is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of government workers and against taxpayers. Even the courts have jumped into the fray, ruling that officials may ignore the pro-union edicts of arbitrators in labor disputes if they are unaffordable.
These measures represent a sea change after a decade in which salaries for county workers jumped by 50 percent and pensions and health benefits shot up by a staggering 120 percent. With revenue growth projected at just half the previous decade’s levels, the county is facing what officials rightly call “a new normal.”
The shift underway in Montgomery, and on the all-Democratic council, takes place in a national context. Strained budgets have forced many Democrats to rethink their relations with labor. And as in other states and localities, the changes in Montgomery are not coming without a fight.
Council members have been subjected to insults and verbal abuse by government workers and union officials for their votes. That’s been particularly true of the current chairman, Valerie Ervin (Silver Spring) — ironically, a veteran of the blue-collar labor movement — who, along with council member Phil Andrews (Gaithersburg-Rockville), a veteran whistleblower on union abuse and excesses, has steered the council through some tough but essential votes. The Democratic county executive, Isiah Leggett, also a longtime friend of labor who has made responsible and tough budget cuts, has been branded as dishonorable or “Nixonesque,” as one union member had it. One union boss, Gino Renne,expressed his displeasure with Hans Riemer (At Large), a freshman council member who had barely taken his first votes in office last December thusly: “You’re gonna be a one-termer, pal. Welcome to the big leagues.”
The unions should certainly fight for the best deals for their members. But by their behavior and the tenor of their public comments, they have done a disservice to the thousands of honorable and competent teachers, police officers and other county workers who help make Montgomery such a desirable place to live. Montgomery County has not turned anti-union or developed some sudden antipathy to government workers. But county taxpayers, themselves living within constricted budgets, are demanding the same of their local government and, by extension, of public-sector employees.