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Md. union leaders watching Wisconsin labor battle

Maryland public-sector unions want to send a message to their counterparts in Wisconsin: “We’re with you.”

Several of the largest Maryland state employee groups plan to rally in Annapolis on Tuesday to show solidarity with employees in Wisconsin, who are protesting the effort by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to take away collective-bargaining rights from public-sector unions.

Among the many signs draped over a railing in the rotunda of the Wisconsin state capitol is a yellow bedsheet with the words, “Baltimore is here with you.”

While the efforts of Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican state legislature would be unlikely to find much legislative support in deeply Democratic Maryland, union leaders here say it reflects a rising national trend against government employee unions.
“There are sharp attacks on public workers in a number of states,” said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. He pointed to layoffs, pay cuts and benefit reductions occurring in states across the country.

“Wisconsin just happens to be very blatant about what it is doing,” he said.

Officials with Baltimore’s police and fire unions drew parallels between the rancor in the Midwest and the acrimony here over the attempt by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to shore up the pension system by scaling back benefits.

Mason said the lingering effects of the national recession and Republican gains nationally in November have combined to create a poisonous atmosphere for unions. The Maryland-DC AFL-CIO includes more than 350,000 members.

“People are confused. Everybody is suffering,” Mason said. “But workers should not be blamed for the economic crisis. These are systemic problems.”

Maryland lawmakers are weighing pension reforms this year likely to anger public-employee unions. A rally to call attention to that is planned for March. And state Sen. Allan Kittleman has introduced a bill that would break ties between employers and unions.

The Annapolis rally on Tuesday has been organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employeesand the AFL-CIO. Representatives from the state’s largest teachers group, the Maryland State Education Association, also plan to attend.

Meeting them in Annapolis will be tea partiers from across the state, said Ann Corcoran, author of the Potomac Tea PartyReport blog.

“We support Governor Walker,” said Corcoran, a member of a Hagerstown tea party group. “We feel that we need to show that taxpayers are concerned, too. Everybody’s going to have to give a little, including unions. We applaud Governor Walker for realizing that.”

Wisconsin faces a budget deficit estimated at about $3.6 billion in the next few years. Maryland also has fiscal challenges; Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and the state legislature are working to close a gap thought to be as high as $1.6 billion.

But the political dynamic in the two states is very different, union leaders and lawmakers in Maryland say.

Unions in Maryland have increased their reach under O’Malley. He backed a bill to enable child care workers to organize and supports legislation this year to organize home health care workers. He also shaped a policy to allow unions to collect service fees from nonmembers.

This month, the 23,000 members of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME ratified a three-year contract that allows for raises if state revenues increase. The deal also contains a $750 bonus this year, and for the first time in three years guarantees that workers will not be furloughed.

Patrick Moran, president of the Maryland chapter of AFSCME, said the state “sets an example” of how public unions and administration officials can work together.”

“Although you can have your disagreements on certain issues, you can resolve them,” Moran said. “Maryland faces a budget crisis, but we’ve been able to sit down at a table and work through those problems in a respectful manner. Everyone [is] still working. The Earth has not erupted into chaos.”

By contrast, he said, what’s going on in Wisconsin is “ideological banter, pure and simple.”

Notwithstanding the largely genial tone in Maryland, “we take the gloves off and do battle,” said David Helfman, executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, which has 71,000 members. Helfman said members were prepared to fight any attempts to scale back pensions and benefits. “We will look to protect what we have.”

He said Wisconsin “serves as a wake-up call to unions across the country to remain politically active and vigilant.”

Kittleman’s bill would prohibit employers from requiring a worker to join a union or pay union fees. The Howard County Republican said his bill is “about giving employers and employees more freedom.”

The bill has not had a hearing yet, and is likely to be rejected by a Democratic General Assembly typically supportive of union power.

“People voted to join a union and to have collective bargaining rights and powers,” Moran said, and Kittleman’s proposal would “erode those rights and powers.”

Kittleman said Maryland has “swung way too far to provide advantages to unions.”

“While we don’t have the same situation as Wisconsin, we clearly are having problems with our public pensions as well,” he said.

Baltimore has seen a widening divide in recent years between elected officials and public-safety unions.

And in Anne Arundel County on Tuesday, the County Council is scheduled to debate whether to end binding arbitration between the county and its public-safety unions.

Baltimore police and fire unions filed a federal lawsuit against the city last summer after Rawlings-Blake overhauled their pension system — raising the retirement age and increasing worker contributions, among other changes — which officials estimate will save the city $400 million over five years.

Union leaders contend that Rawlings-Blake’s changes went far beyond what was necessary to put the pension system on solid financial footing. Their lawsuit contends that the changes violate the contracts of current police and firefighters.

“Much like I think this mayor did here in Baltimore, Governor Walker said, ‘Let’s use the current environment to scale back even more than is necessary,'” said Detective Robert F. Cherry, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said there were no parallels between her actions and those of Walker.

“What the governor of Wisconsin is [doing is] completely different than anything that we’re doing here,” spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said. “He’s going far beyond what’s needed to address the current budgetary problems … which is what we’re focused on here.

In her State of the City address this month, Rawlings-Blake described the pension overhaul as “necessary to secure a dignified retirement for Baltimore police and firefighters that the city can afford.”

The police and fire unions mounted a publicity campaign to pressure Rawlings-Blake and the City Council to reverse some of the pension changes. They have hired public relations firms, posted billboards claiming that elected officials “turned their backs” on fire and police and have protested outside political fundraisers.

“I think the politicians here, the politicians in Baltimore City, forget where their support has come from,” said Robert Sledgeski, president of the city firefighters union.

The FOP and firefighters union have invited labor groups from across the country to join them in picketing the National Conference of Mayors, which will take place in Baltimore for the first time this June.

Rawlings-Blake has maintained close relations with AFSCME and has lauded the Baltimore Teachers Union for approving a landmark contract in the fall.

Baltimore Sunreporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article