Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Consequences of the Budget, Part Three

The school system was not the only powerful institution that was challenged by the budget. Also in the crosshairs were the public employee unions.


When analyzing the unions, it’s important to keep in mind their differences rather than assume them to be monolithic. There are six county employee unions. MCEA, which represents teachers, SEIU Local 500, which represents school support staff, and the Montgomery County Association of Administrative and Supervisory Personnel (MCAASP), which represents school supervisors, all have members in the school system. They negotiate their contracts with the Superintendent, who sends them to the elected Board of Education for approval. The County Council can set the overall size of the school budget, but they cannot dictate line items in school contracts or specific employee policies (like furloughs). The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 represents police officers, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664 represents career fire fighters and MCGEO represents nearly all other non-managerial line workers. These three unions negotiate contracts with the County Executive, which are then approved by the council. The County Council has lots of authority over these contracts, and can reject them, refuse to fund increases contained in them and can even strike individual provisions in them. In most years, the six unions get similar gains, but this year was different.

One significant result of this budget is an angry split between the public employee unions. None of them are getting general wage adjustments or step increases, but in other ways they are being treated differently. The County Executive’s original proposal subjected non-public safety employees to ten days of furloughs each. (The Executive does not have the authority to decide questions related to staffing in the school system.) So of the six public employee unions, only MCGEO – which represents nearly everyone except for police officers, fire fighters and education employees – would have been hit by furloughs.

MCGEO fought back, arguing that they were unfairly targeted and basic fairness held that all employees should be furloughed at the same rate. Four County Council Members agreed with MCGEO in principle at their parking garage rally. Council staff found that if furloughs were spread across the government, each employee would only have to take 1.5 days. This prompted a response from the school unions, who raised questions about the feasibility of furloughs in the schools and argued that changes to the county reserves would be sufficient to prevent all furloughs. But the council, which was under pressure from bond rating agencies, did not buy it. In the end, they chose to implement a progressive furlough structure of three to eight days for non-school employees, with higher-paid workers taking more furlough days. The school system took a budget cut but did not have to take furloughs.

This approach created winners and losers among the unions. MCGEO is a loser, but it did suffer fewer furlough days than under the Executive’s proposal. The police and fire fighters are big losers. The Executive did not propose furloughs for them, but the council implemented them anyway. The school unions successfully held off all furloughs.

Most importantly, the six unions could not agree on a common approach to the budget. While the three school unions largely stuck together, the remaining three county government unions (MCGEO, the police and fire fighters) not only went against the schools, they also went against each other. Next year could see a similar conflict. While there has always been occasional friction between the unions owing to different budget priorities and different styles (especially among the leaders), it has been a LONG time since they were this far apart.

This picture of a public safety worker protesting Council Member Nancy Navarro’s fundraiser says it all about the state of inter-union relations.

The big question is whether the unions’ disagreements over the budget will spill over into their electoral cooperation. Regardless of their squabbling, they are all better off if they make the same endorsements and work together on behalf of their candidates. If not, only their hardened enemies on the council will benefit.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the long term.