Thursday, May 01, 2008

Challenge to the Unions, Part One

In a story first reported by the Washington Post’s Ann Marimow, Montgomery County Council Member and Management and Fiscal Policy Committee Chairwoman Duchy Trachtenberg has written to UFCW Local 1994 (MCGEO), one of the county’s public employee unions, offering a choice between layoffs or smaller pay increases. We reproduce the letter and discuss its importance below.

April 29, 2008

Gino Renne, President
UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO
600 S. Frederick Ave., Ste. 200
Gaithersburg, MD 20877

Dear Mr. Renne:

In light of the difficult decisions County Council faces for the upcoming budget, I am turning to elected union leadership for counsel during this process.

The strong advantage of having union represented county employees is that the union structure, through its elected leadership, is an excellent conduit to reach out to the rank and file. It is important to each councilmember to hear and respect what options county and school employees would prefer as the Council balances the interests of residents across Montgomery County while making our final budget decisions. Without unions in place, this process would be much more difficult.

With the uncertainty of the County Council’s willingness to break the charter limits and concerns over jeopardizing our AAA credit rating, we may well not have the revenue needed to execute the current CBAs [collective bargaining agreements] without invoking their provisions for Reductions in Force. In an abundance of caution, I want to begin a conversation about all available options that might come forward to avoid force reductions as we face the budget deficit.

I am reaching out for an honest and open discussion of options to address our budget deficit. This invitation is extended to MCGEO, SEIU 500, FOP [police], IAFF [fire fighters] and MCEA [teachers]. To facilitate our discussion, below is a list of ideas that have come to my attention that warrant a response from organized labor. You are all invited to submit a memo outlining your concerns and options you feel will be acceptable to the county and school system employees you all represent.

1. If your members were given a choice between a reduction in COLA [cost of living adjustment] or involuntary layoffs through each contract’s provisions for Reduction in Force, which option do you think your rank and file would find most acceptable?

2. The County Executive projects only 58 employees will take an early retirement buyout option. Do you concur with this position, or do you believe there is more demand for this option? What are the best ways to structure these offers to make them more appealing to your members?

3. Would you have members interested and able to participate in a voluntary layoff program that would protect their seniority and health insurance while they drew unemployment for six months? Would there be more interest if this option could be used as a way to bridge a member to retirement?

4. During the District 4 Special Democratic Primary, Don Praisner proposed an extensive labor management cooperation program to help identify savings, much in the same manner as MCGEO’s letter to council. Would your members be interested in such a program?

These questions by no means limit our conversation. For further clarification of this request and any other questions you may have, please contact Eric Hensal through my office. Eric is a former union organizer with a depth of experience in labor issues and a Masters of Public Administration earned through the National Labor College. I am sure you will find Eric an excellent resource as we all chart a course through the current budget crisis.


Duchy Trachtenberg
Chair, Management and Fiscal Policy Committee

cc: Honorable Ike Leggett, County Executive
Honorable Mike Knapp, Council President
Honorable Phil Andrews, Council Vice-President
Steve Farber, Council Staff Director
The letter is a dramatic development in the county’s budget crisis for several reasons.

1. There are only about two weeks to go before the County Council begins voting on the FY09 budget. This letter to the unions comes late in the game. As recently as April 9, the Gazette reported that Council Member Trachtenberg “said the contracts with county employees should be honored.”

2. When Ms. Trachtenberg refers to “the uncertainty of the County Council’s willingness to break the [property tax] charter limits,” she is referring to a situation over which she has some control. After all, Ms. Trachtenberg told the Gazette, “I do not support going over the charter limit.” Added to Council Member Phil Andrews’ opposition to the property tax increase, the tax hike is in real danger of not passing because it requires seven of the current eight council votes. Ms. Trachtenberg’s opposition to the property tax hike may in fact be creating a need for the sort of choices she is now offering the unions.

3. The reference to Eric Hensal is noteworthy. Hensal lost a special election in Takoma Park to fill Marc Elrich’s vacant city council seat and went on to manage Don Praisner’s District 4 County Council campaign. During the District 4 campaign, the Post reported that Hensal was seen entering the County Council building for lunch appointments with staffers for Marilyn Praisner and Ms. Trachtenberg. Has he now been hired as council staff or as a consultant by Ms. Trachtenberg? If he is a consultant, a reference to him in the letter is very unusual. Why would a sitting council member allow a third-party consultant to speak for her on such a vital matter as employee layoffs or COLA reductions?

But there is more. The public sector unions have not forgotten Don Praisner’s frequent criticism of their contracts during the special election. Nor have they forgotten how the Praisner campaign branded union-backed Nancy Navarro as a “special interest” candidate. Are any of the unions likely to view Mr. Praisner’s campaign manager as a desirable interlocutor for labor relations issues?

4. Ms. Trachtenberg gained a famous fan through her letter: none other than Robin Ficker. On Maryland Moment, Ficker squealed with delight:

Trachtenberg is just the kind of person I like---one tough cookie when she wants to be. Continue asking the tough questions Duchy. Social security recipients get a 2.3% increase in 2008 with NO step increases. I loved Charles Barkley. I would ask him, “Charles I know you want to run for Governor of Alabama, but before I vote for you I want to know your views on the economy, NAFTA and healthcare.” He would reply, “Well, I do have a view on the death penalty----they should use it on you!” Trachtenberg reminds me of Barkley.
All of the above is subject to one awful truth: the county is facing a $297 million budget deficit and the County Council has two weeks to go before the tough votes come. Ms. Trachtenberg did not create this deficit and the problems are real. In Part Two, we will examine whether the county can meet its contractual obligations to the unions in the current budget environment.