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Unions' power waning in progressive Montgomery

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Public-sector labor unions in liberal stronghold Montgomery County are seeing their influence fade.

County lawmakers have already stripped the Fraternal Order of Police of its right to bargain any management decision, known as "effects bargaining." The union is trying to overturn the measure on the November ballot, but both the county's Democratic and Republican parties are working to prevent that.

The law that the union hopes to reverse was passed in July 2011, about a month after county lawmakers created a two-tiered disability pension system for both the FOP and the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, or MCGEO, effectively reducing the majority of disability pension applicants' benefits.

But these changes might just be the beginning of public-sector unions' waning power, some labor experts say.

"What we're seeing nationally is a recognition by voters in general that employees in state and local government receive wages and benefits higher than comparable workers in the private sector," said Michael Wachter, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in labor law. "Especially as pensions and medical insurance have gotten more out of line with practices in the private sector, public support [for unions] has diminished."

A Gallup poll released at the end of August showed approval for labor unions at 52 percent -- a near-record low. The poll also found that 41 percent would like to see unions become less influential than they are now and that 52 percent predicted they will become weaker.

"People are beginning to feel, particularly with the government worker, that they are abusing their power," said George Washington University law professor Charles Craver.

And with support starting to wane, the union's influence through things like candidate endorsements by teachers' organizations may also hold less sway, he said.

Montgomery County is no different.

"There's clearly been a change in the political landscape for unions, there's no doubt about that," said MCGEO President Gino Renne. And though public-sector unions have generally enjoyed more strength and stability than their private-sector counterparts, "that is changing."

Though Renne attributed the changes in part to the union membership declining as county and municipal government cut positions, Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews, who fathered the recent pension changes, said there are other factors.

"The public is rightly concerned when public employees appear to be treated much better than private employees with regard to pension benefits or other issues like that," said Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville.

And unions' power is going to continue to decline, even after the country recovers from the recession, said Wachter.

"In the sense of rollback of union benefits and wages where they're above private-sector wages, this is just the beginning," he said. "This is going to continue for a long time."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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