Montgomery councilman criticizes colleagues for pandering to union

Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

A Montgomery County Council member accused lawmakers who back a bill supporting contract workers of pandering to a labor union rather than making good policy decisions.

"If we pass this bill we're doing it for one local," Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, said before the County Council Health and Human Services Committee, which he heads. "I do not only work for SEIU 32BJ. My colleagues may feel they do. I don't. I work for all the people -- all the people, all the workers of Montgomery County. This bill was introduced at the behest of one local, and it protects the workers who are respectively represented by one local. I think that's a concern."

The branch of the Service Employees International Union that represents building service workers -- security officers, doormen, porters, maintenance workers, bus drivers, window cleaners and food service workers -- requested the bill, which has five co-sponsors. The measure would require property owners who hire those types of contractors to keep the employees for 90 days after a contract ends. If a new contractor is replacing the old one, the new contractor must hire the employees for a 90-day "transition period."

Supporters of the bill -- including County Executive Ike Leggett -- argue that it would protect low-wage workers from an industry characterized by frequent turnover. "The displaced worker bill is not a bill about raising the salaries of the employees who work cleaning buildings or provide other critical service work," said the bill's lead sponsor, Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring. "It is about providing them with the most basic of all job protections -- notification and the offer of temporary employment when a service contract changes hands."

But businesses have mobilized quickly to oppose the bill, arguing that it takes employment decisions out of business owners' hands.

"If passed, this bill is an extraordinary departure from employment law and policy in Montgomery County, as well as the state of Maryland," said Shaun Pharr, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Pharr expressed concerns that, under national labor laws, the contractor will have to bargain with the union over wages, rather than being able to set the wages it wants, when most of a contractor's new staff consists of union members.

But supporters argue that a similar law already exists in the District, where it apparently has not hurt the business climate.

"The only thing the bill does is give the current workers already employed there a chance to prove themselves," said Jaime Contreras, Capital Area director for SEIU-32BJ. "It prevents people from losing their jobs."

Although Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, removed the bill from Tuesday's agenda, five council members can motion for a vote during the meeting, meaning the bill could be decided Tuesday if all five co-sponsors want to vote.

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