Wednesday, April 07, 2010

MCGEO Lays Siege to Rockville

They came from every corner of the county, from every race, age and ethnicity of humankind, united only by their shirts of radioactive yellow. That is the war color of MCGEO, the giant Montgomery County government employees union. The union leaders sent out their call and in swarmed the members last night, over five hundred in number. First they yelled defiantly at the council building, fists pumping and signs aloft. Then they invaded.

MCGEO is known for its tough talk, its theatrics and its ability to mobilize bodies – lots and lots of bodies. They did not disappoint. Their yellow-clad hordes blanketed the council parking garage’s roof to hear the battle cries of their leadership. They also gathered to evaluate politicians, and many of them showed up. Some came to encourage. Others came to caution. Still others came to curry favor. But for whatever reason, the politicians came and that’s what mattered.

Four incumbent Council Members spoke to the teeming masses: George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin (a long-time member of MCGEO’s parent union), Marc Elrich and Nancy Navarro. Four challengers also spoke: at-large candidates Hans Riemer and Becky Wagner, District 1 challenger Ilaya Hopkins and District 2 challenger Sharon Dooley.

Left to right: George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin, Nancy Navarro and Marc Elrich.

The union did not ask any of the politicians to support pay increases, and none offered to do so. It is widely understood that the county’s budget problems prevent any pay hikes. Rather, MCGEO’s issue is fairness. They believe their members are carrying an unfair share of the County Executive’s proposed budget cuts.

MCGEO’s case rests on two issues. First, they are the only union whose members are to be furloughed. The school unions, the police and the fire fighters are exempt. The County Executive’s budget proposal cut the police and fire fighter budgets by single digits while several departments represented by MCGEO were cut by 20% or more. Second, the union claims management positions were largely spared while hundreds of rank-and-file workers will be laid off. That is because the agency budgets are developed by – you guessed it – managers. And the agency budgets collectively form the Executive’s proposal.

During his testimony before the County Council later that night, fearsome MCGEO President Gino Renne claimed that county managers made 59% more money than their counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions while line workers made just 10% more. And so the managers’ high pay is augmented by greater job security. Who says the county is not learning from the private sector?

MCGEO clearly wants the budget pain to be shared with other unions as well as management. That is a hard sell to the five other county employee unions, each of whom is going without pay increases. The teachers are about to endure an increase in average class size of one student. “How do you furlough teachers?” asked one MCEA member of your author. Such views do not elicit sympathy from MCGEO.

The budget process is producing some degree of split in labor. All observers noted the presence of two separate employee rallies: the yellow mass march of MCGEO and a smaller rally by the school unions held on the council steps at the same time. Ominously for the other unions, all four incumbent Council Members who spoke before MCGEO said they would work towards smoothing out the sacrifice. (George Leventhal even cried out, “The Washington Post wants us to beat up on you!” What will their rabidly anti-union editors think of that?) Whatever their budget differences, the unions must come together at election time. Otherwise, their enemies will triumph.

MCGEO Yellow and SEIU Purple in the council hearing room – a moment of solidarity.

Finally, the numbers, the yellow, the politicians, the chants and the unbearable crush of human flesh in the council hearing room were not enough for MCGEO. They needed a symbol for their outrage and they produced one: a gleaming golden toilet emblematic of the County Executive’s bathroom preferences. The toilet was so weighted down by its golden crust that it required four beefy union members to haul it up the steps to the speaking platform, where it was raised aloft for the cheering crowd like a royal trophy. Politicians should beware else they are flushed.