Union anger at Montgomery Council spills into public view; Superintendent Hite talks about education in Pr. George’s

December 8, 2010 - 01:57 PM
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A bill that would alter the relationship between Montgomery County and its employee unions has sparked an angry response from labor leaders, who voiced their objections in blunt, and at times searing, terms at a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

The measure (Council Bill 57-10), which has been co-sponsored by all nine members of the panel, would make changes in the factors an arbitrator could consider in the event of an impasse in negotiations on a new contract. If the measure passes, the county’s “ability to pay” would emerge as a primary factor in the arbitrator’s ruling. As Council Vice-President Roger Berliner (D-District 1) said on NewsTalk today, “This change in law would say first and foremost… make sure that you are assessing whether or not the county can actually afford this particular benefit. Which to all of us on the Council feels like a very reasonable proposition.”

Union leaders blasted the council at a hearing on the bill Tuesday. Gino Renne, head of UFCW Local 1994, called the measure “anathema to open government. It is an enemy of transparency and it is an escape hatch to enable elected leaders… to evade their respective roles in the collective bargaining process.”

AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams asked whether “there (is) another agenda on the part of the proponents of this measure. Might this be, in fact, nothing more than a blatant and heavy-handed attempt to curry favor in the press by picking a fight with labor? If so, double shame on you.”

A recent Washington Post editorial assailed the county’s pay and benefit outlays as “unsustainably large” and said Montgomery’s labor unions “have grown into unmanageable giants.” The Post’s editorial page has written with some frequency about the pay and benefit increases workers received during the Duncan years, comparing the county unfavorably with Fairfax in terms of how the two large, wealthy counties have weathered the economic downturn.

Montgomery has long been a high-tax, high-service county, a place where residents are willing to pay more in taxes if it means having strong schools and robust government services, though periodic “tax revolts” have arisen on occasion.

Renne also said council members failed to adequately consult with union leaders before introducing the bill, which, given its nine co-sponsors, seems likely to pass in some form.

The public hearing at which the bill was considered was unusually frank, particularly for Montgomery County, and especially since most members of the all-Democratic council consider themselves friends of labor.

Berliner told us the rhetoric at yesterday’s hearing went overboard at times.

Berliner also said he does not feel that the county’s workforce is overpaid, but he did say that taxpayers spend too much on health insurance and retirement benefits. He said he had a long phone conversation with Renne on his way to our studio, in the hope of allaying some of the concerns expressed at the public hearing.

Our interview with Roger Berliner can be seen today at 4pm, 6pm and 8:30pm on TBD TV. We’ll stream the 4pm version at http://www.tbd.com/tv/

Also today, we spoke at length with Prince George’s Schools Superintendent William Hite, Jr. Part 1 of the interview will re-air at the times above. Part 2 is here: 

Thursday at 10am on TBD: Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and DC Councilman Jack Evans


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