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Driving up labor costs in Montgomery County

By Editorial, Published: May 2 | Updated: Tuesday, April 26, 4:14 PM

THROUGH A 25-YEAR political career that has included leadership roles in Montgomery County and a stint as Maryland’s Democratic Party chairman, Isiah Leggett, the current county executive, has been a steadfast advocate for organized labor and public-sector unions. So it’s astonishing that Mr. Leggett has lately become the subject of venomous personal attacks by the county’s public-sector unions.

His sin? Trying to rein in Montgomery’s unsustainable labor costs, which include salaries that have doubled in the past decade for some county employees. For that, Mr. Leggett is now abused by the county’s labor bosses, who call him “Nixonesque” and paint him as Maryland’s answer to Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s union-busting governor.

In the unions’ view, Mr. Leggett’s offense is to have rolled back or ignored, for three years running, signed labor contracts and arbitrators’ awards. That sounds patently illegal; in fact, the law is murky. Two years ago, the county firefighters’ union sued Mr. Leggett for refusing to honor the terms of its labor contract after the recession sapped county revenues. The union lost. Last month, in a similar case, the police sued — and won. The case is now before the courts.

The question is whether Montgomery’s charter, which obligates Mr. Leggett to protect the county’s fiscal health, trumps labor agreements. The labor relations officer who decided the case two years ago said that it did, agreeing with Mr. Leggett’s view that honoring the firefighters’ contract would force him to irresponsibly gut budgets for libraries, parks and other services — and initiate sweeping layoffs. Last week’s ruling went the other way.

That has left the county in a bizarre legal limbo, where collective bargaining has become a sort of charade. Mr. Leggett, seeking to stave off ever more draconian budget cuts, has regularly flouted the results of so-called binding arbitration to resolve labor disputes. The County Council, which controls appropriations, has made clear it is not legally bound by any contracts or arbitrators’ awards — although in practice council members have often been swayed by the unions.

All this is unsustainable. At the heart of the problem in containing spiraling labor costs is the county’s binding arbitration system, a heavily tilted field in which the unions almost always prevail. Arbitrators must be approved by both sides, but in practice the unions have exerted the most influence in choosing them.

A few months ago, the council tried to fix this by requiring that arbitrators give top priority to the county’s ability to pay. Unfortunately, the result was business as usual: Three straight impasses were resolved in the unions’ favor despite large ongoing and projected budget deficits. Honoring those arbitrators’ awards would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in further lost services, even higher taxes, or both. Any given arbitrator may be correct that the county can afford one particular contract, but the cumulative effect, which Mr. Leggett is in a better position to judge, is harmful.

The council should consider legislation to mandate a more even-handed arbitration process. One model might be Baltimore County, where arbitration is handled by a panel that includes, but isn’t controlled by, labor.

Failing that, Montgomery voters will have no choice but to consider a more drastic measure — amending the county charter to limit or abolish collective bargaining for public employees. Already, a petition drive to do that is in the works for the 2012 ballot. That may seem like a nuclear option, but readily available evidence suggests it is not: Just across the Potomac in Virginia, Fairfax County manages to attract a first-rate, well-paid and fairly treated public workforce — without collective bargaining and with more sustainable labor costs.