Small Union, Big Power Struggle
By Eric Hartley
They had a deal.
In the summer of 2009, county sheriff's deputies would get a 3 percent raise, plus another 4 percent raise for everyone with satisfactory performance ratings.
But in the heart of a recession, County Executive John R. Leopold decided such generous contracts, signed a couple of years earlier, didn't work any more.
The county asked unions to reopen negotiations and take smaller raises. Some agreed. The deputies, part of Teamsters Local 355, did not.
"Either take our deal, which basically cuts you by 4 percent, or we're going to cut you by 7 percent," said Denis Taylor, the local Teamsters president. "So it was basically strong-arm tactics by Leopold and his administration. We were not going to have any of it."
The county did it anyway.
Despite the contract, the County Council unanimously passed Leopold's emergency bill keeping the deputies' salaries the same as the year before. The first paycheck after July 1, 2009, arrived, and there were no raises.
The union immediately filed a grievance, then filed for arbitration when the county rejected the grievance. The county refused to participate, despite binding arbitration also being part of the contract. So the union sued.
A judge sided with the union, ordering arbitration in 2010. The county appealed, and last week, a state appeals court ruled for the union again.
This was never really about money. The union's 58 members are a fraction of the hundreds in the police officers' and firefighters' unions. The year's worth of pay increases at issue would have cost only about $75,000, less than the union has spent on legal fees, Taylor said.
For both sides, it was about principle and what they saw as fairness.
The county thought all employees should have to share the pain in tough times.
"We treated everybody the same way," County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said.
As a moral argument, that might work. As a legal one, not so much.
The union saw fairness a different way. Deputies understood they'd have to make concessions in their next contract. But a deal is a deal.
"The county was going through rough times," said Deputy Dave Belisle, the chief shop steward for the union. "When our contract expired, it'd have been our turn in the barrel to take a hit."
But for the county to unilaterally change the deal? Taylor said he'd never seen anything like it in more than 20 years with the union local, which represents 6,000 workers in 90 organizations.
"If this was a private employer and they had acted similarly ... the labor board would have been all over them," Taylor said.
The county was just ahead of the curve. While this lawsuit has proceeded, the role and very existence of public-sector unions have come under attack.
New governors in New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states have taken attacking unions as a sort of populist mission, as if teachers and police officers are getting rich at the expense of struggling taxpayers.
It's become mainstream to wonder whether government employees should have the right to unionize at all.
Belisle called the county's breaking its word "a form of union-busting," a way to show who's in charge.
"I don't get it," he said. "All of a sudden county employees became the bad guy."
The county has fought to roll back union rights in subtler ways, resisting an effort by park rangers to join the Teamsters and suggesting they join a different union. (Perhaps because the Teamsters don't play ball.) The rangers won and joined the Teamsters.
Several unions are suing the county over a new law that takes away the right to binding arbitration. A judge sided with the county, but the ruling's being appealed.
In the deputies' case, Taylor said he expects the county to keep resisting even if the arbitrator rules for the union. Hodgson said the attorney handling the case was out of the office and he was unsure how the county will proceed.
Maybe you think the deputies should have been willing to compromise. But a contract has to mean something.
During arguments in Circuit Court, Assistant County Attorney William Dickerson said such salary agreements only apply after the money has been put in the budget. In other words, a union can have a contract, but the county gets the final say.
"If that were the case," Judge Philip Caroom asked, "wouldn't it make that provision in the collective bargaining agreement meaningless?"
Yes, it would.
The county also argued its broken promise isn't subject to arbitration - and that arbitration would be futile anyway - because no one can order the executive and County Council how to spend money.
Even if an arbitrator ruled for the union, the case would be right back in court, Dickerson said.
A Court of Special Appeals panel rejected that notion, saying an arbitrator can award damages for breach of contract. If it couldn't, there would be no point to binding arbitration.
With a level of frankness unusual in court rulings, the unanimous judges said the county's argument "has no merit."