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Union rights extend to more Maryland state workers

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2012

While many states' lawmakers enact policy unfriendly to unions, Maryland legislators expanded collective bargaining rights to more state employees for the third year in a row.

As of July 1, employees of the Office of the Comptroller, Maryland Transportation Authority, the State Retirement Agency and the Maryland State Department of Education can unionize.

The legislation could add 5,000 employees to the collective bargaining pool, said Lawrence Myers, spokesman for Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's finance office.

The actual number who can unionize is likely be closer to 1,600 because supervisors cannot join, said Jeff Pittman, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of Maryland, which represents most state employees and would represent these offices.

In recent years, public school teachers, child care providers, and private home health aides paid by the state have newly received collective bargaining rights.

Under the state collective bargaining law signed in 1998, only employees working at agencies directly under the governor could unionize. The comptroller is an elected official, and the other three agencies have governing boards, so employees working for these departments did not qualify.

"They weren't captured the first time around," said Delegate Adrienne Jones, Baltimore County Democrat.

Ms. Jones agreed to sponsor the bill after a town hall meeting last year where employees of the comptroller's office agitated for collective bargaining rights.

Currently, employees at each agency are collecting petition signatures to bring unionization to a vote. Mr. Pittman said the people getting the signatures want to be sure a majority of employees are also in favor of unions. He expects those petitions to be filed in the next few weeks.

The Labor Relations Board will then schedule an election,and employees can vote whether to unionize or not. If more than half of eligible members who send in a ballot want to unionize, the agency will. Employees would be covered by bargaining unit contracts that are already in place and expire Dec. 31, 2014.

State employees can choose not to join the union, but they will still be required to pay the union a "fair share" fee of $13.89 every pay period, Mr. Pittman said. The fee -- $361.14 a year -- pays for negotiating and contract claims the union performs for all employees' benefit.

Some employees in the four affected agencies chose to join AFSCME before this bill passed. Those members paid union dues, but did not yet qualify for collective bargaining rights. As members, they received discounts on different goods and services, like health club memberships.

AFSCME members who work in the comptroller's office testified in favor of the bill during a Feb. 21 House of Delegates committee hearing.

At that hearing, Telina Jones, an employee for more than 16 years, said the office needs collective bargaining to negotiate with management for consistent policies and training programs. Lack of policy and training creates confusion and errors in the office, she said. Callers often get several different answers to the same question from different employees,she said.

She also said management does not currently listen to complaints or suggestions from employees, but "there is strength in numbers."

On Wednesday, the Board of Public Works approved a $100,000 transfer to the State Labor Relations Board to pay for the increased workload created by the collective bargaining expansion, Mr. Myers said. The money will pay for an extra administrative employee, office supplies, mailing ballots and the full-time wage of an assistant attorney general who was previously part time.

As a result of the bill, a lot of work needs to be done in a short amount of time, said State Labor Relations Board Executive Director Erica Snipes. Once a petition to unionize is filed, the board has 90 days to send ballots to employees, she said. The board will mail those ballots as well as notices and packets of information about unionization to employees, she said.

If employees vote to unionize, the labor board will be responsible for managing disputes between the state and new union members.

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