ROCKVILLE – A partisan crowd of organized union workers gathered at the council office building Tuesday night to listen to testimony on a proposed bill that would change the way unions collectively bargain with the County.
As County residents read their statements one by one to the council, the raucous audience largely made up of union members cheered or jeered at the statements.
As Joan Fidler testified in favor of expedited bill 24-16 that would make parts of the collective bargaining process public, she was interrupted.
“Don’t insult the taxpayers of this County, ma’am,” shouted a man from the back of the council hearing room.
Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At large) is the lead sponsor on the bill, which would require the County and unions to disclose their initial bargaining position when they are collectively bargaining. Additionally, the bill would require that any evidentiary hearing be open to the public.
“In my view, opening up the process to the public at these two points but only these points, not for the entire negotiating process, is just plain common sense,” said Vernon Ricks, of the Montgomery County Organization Reform Commission.
Floreen said this would make collective bargaining more transparent, while union leaders say that disclosure would unfairly hurt unions’ ability to negotiate.
“Trying to conduct the collective bargaining in a public forum is absolutely, completely absurd,” said Richard Kirschner who said he has practiced labor law for 55 years. “If you don’t conduct your discussions in a matrimonial divorce case in the public, you don’t discuss collective bargaining in the public.”
The bill would also add an extra two weeks for negotiating time, repeal the ability for unions to help select a labor relations administrator (LRA) or umpire, and create a three-person arbitration panel to make final decision when parties cannot come to an agreement.
Fidler, from the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, said the proposed bill will bring balance to the collective bargaining process and that the union members received several generous wage increases from the County.
“We do believe that labor unions are important and so are employee rights. But taxpayers are important too, and they too have rights,” Fidler said.
Union leaders called most of these moves unnecessary, saying the current labor laws in the County work just fine.
“This proposed legislation only serves to unravel that which has been declared public policy of the County for decades, that is to preserve an appropriate balance between labor and management,” said Jeffrey Buddle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) in the County.
Those in opposition to the bill accused Floreen of proposing an anti-union bill that originated from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonpartisan organization of state legislators.
After opponents of the bill accused the Council of taking the idea for the bill from the ALEC, Council member George Leventhal (D- At-large) specifically asked the bill’s author Robert Drummer if he consulted the group while writing the bill.
“No, I did not,” Drummer said.
Drummer’s response was met with groans from the largely union crowd, and with several people shouting, “Liar!”
Some see the bill as a response to the most recent negotiations between the County Executive and the public sector unions over step increases.
While the County Executive agreed to eight percent raises to members of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO), the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and a two percent raise for members of IAFF, the council chose to not fund a 4.5 percent step increase of MCGEO and FOP and a one percent wage adjustment for IAFF.
Merle Cuttitta, from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said the proposed bill was a cynical response to tough negotiations this year.
“It is petty, it is vindictive and needs to be stopped dead in its tracks,” Cuttitta said.