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County Unions Quietly Accept New Arbitration Law

Only a week ago, union chief passionately opposed the measure

Montgomery County Council members voted to make it easier Tuesday for the county to win contract disputes with organized labor without a peep from the union leaders who just a week earlier accused the council of turning its back on working people.

The measure, unanimously approved, would require an impartial arbitrator to first consider the county's ability to pay for any contract improvements before reviewing other factors, such as wages in neighboring areas when there's an impasse during collective bargaining.

Council President Valerie Ervin, a former union organizer, said the legislation "levels the playing field" for contract negotiations that go to arbitration.

Arbitrators have sided with labor union proposals in 12 out of the 17 times that a county worker contract has gone to arbitration since 1988.

"As one with more than a quarter century on the front lines of the labor movement, I am deeply committed to fairness for County employees," Ervin (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring wrote in a November memo about the bill. "But fairness also requires that the County can afford to honor its labor contracts. It also requires equitable treatment for taxpayers and service recipients."

The nine council members, all Democrats — many of whom consider themselves union allies, are wrestling with a $350 million budget shortfall and presented a rare united front in putting all their names on the original legislation.

A week ago, Gino Renne, the president of a chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers that represents many Montgomery employees, testified the change to county law was "an enemy of transparency" that allowed elected leaders to "evade their respective roles in the collective bargaining process."

His written testimony also compared Ervin to Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels who described public workers as "a new privileged class" when he took office in 2006.

Stung by the backlash from unions and local progressive organizations such as immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland, a council committee upped the ante and considered tweaking the bill to make it even less palatable to labor: They endorsed requiring the arbitrator to assume that the county would not create new taxes or increase current tax rates to fund contract improvements for workers.

And that, according to Ervin, changed the tenor of the debate.

"Our point was made," Ervin said. "They had to come down or they would have had something way worse."

On Tuesday, council members stripped the bill of the committee's more stringent amendment and passed it in its original form. This time Renne was all smiles.

"They did what they had to do," Renne said after the vote. "We talked to each other and came to an understanding that we have bigger issues ahead of us in terms of future budget negotiations and we're going to collaborate and focus on that."

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