Senate committee moves bill to allow collective bargaining rights for community college employees

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A bid to expand bargaining rights to all employees at Maryland’s 16 community colleges advanced for the second time in the last eight years.

Senate Bill 746 would enable community college employees to unionize and hold elections if they wanted to, but it does not mandate unionization. It simply grants all community college employees the legal right to bargain collectively.

Although the 1935 National Labor Relations Act requires private companies to grant its employees the right to collectively bargain, the federal law is silent on public entities, Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said in a phone interview. In Maryland, granting public employees the right to unionize has been done in a piecemeal process, he continued.

While four community colleges already have some collective bargaining rights in state law, this bill would expand those rights statewide.

After taking time to talk with community college representatives, the Senate Finance committee tacked on some amendments that would delay the bill’s implementation and advanced the measure in a 8-3 vote along party lines on Tuesday.

“We’re excited by today’s vote out of Senate Finance. This legislation has come a long way and is a testament to the hard work of community college employees, labor, our champions in the General Assembly and our whole coalition,” Pia Morrison, President of SEIU Local 500, said in a statement to Maryland Matters.

Since 2014, Del. Keith Haynes (D-Baltimore City) has consistently introduced a House version of the bill, but it only gained momentum in 2016, when it passed the House chamber. In all other years, however, Haynes’s measure died in committee.

Currently, Prince George’s Community College, Baltimore City Community College and the Community College of Baltimore County have bargaining rights for at least some nonfaculty employees. Montgomery College has bargaining rights for almost all its employees, including faculty.

More than 200,000 Maryland public employees have a choice to collectively bargain, advocates said. This bill would simply create a level playing field for community college employees, sponsors said.

“Either we believe that workers should be allowed to collectively bargain or not,” Guzzone said at the bill’s hearing this month. “Why shouldn’t the public sector essentially be responsible in the same light as the private sector is? To me, this is an equity issue.”

However, opponents are concerned that students may have to shoulder the extra costs of potential wage increases from unionization. Community colleges depend on the state, local government and student tuition for funding. And the Cade funding formula, enacted by the legislature in 1996 to provide annual increases in state support for community colleges, has been delayed by multiple governors for various reasons.

“If the state isn’t taking care of their share and if the counties are struggling to make up their share, it only falls onto the students in the increase in tuition,” Sen. Stephen Hershey (R-Upper Shore) said.

But Montgomery College, which has most of its faculty and staff unionized, does not have the most expensive tuition in the state, advocates highlighted.

Furthermore, bargaining does not always have to do with wage increases. Some part-time faculty do not even have their own desk to hold office hours for students, Haynes said.

“There are things that relate to working conditions that may not have anything to do with salary,” Haynes said at the hearing on the House version of the bill. “It really is an inequity in some cases of instruction to the students, because if a student can’t properly meet their instructor, they’re not getting the full benefit of the instructor’s wisdom.”

Under the bill, workers could bargain wages, work hours, other terms and conditions of employment and the procedures for membership dues. Strikes would be prohibited.

As proposed this year, the bill would delay workers’ ability to bargain over salary and wage increases by a year or two. “We know the pandemic has created harsh economic realities for workers and management alike,” Morrison of SEIU Local 500 said in a bill hearing. “Respect on the job is about more than salaries.”

Democratic leaders from seven jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — expressed their support for the measure.

“All of us in the Big Seven counties think it’s a healthy thing — it’s been a long time coming,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said.

Republican leaders argued that smaller counties did not have the same budget flexibility as larger counties to help fund community colleges.

“A couple hundred thousand dollars at the community college is just a rounding error for [Montgomery County],” Hershey said Tuesday. “In the case of other counties, this is a substantial part of their budget that they have to use to fund these community colleges.”

Cecil County’s council president opposed the bill, writing to lawmakers that college budgets would be stretched so thin there would need to be layoffs to come up with additional funding.

Bernard Sadusky, the executive director of Maryland Association of Community Colleges who testified in opposition, said that MACC met with some of the Senate Finance committee members to try to reach a middle ground. As a result, the amended bill delays its implementation, especially for smaller rural community colleges, and reduces the number of bargaining units from six to four.

However, these amendments alone are not enough, Sadusky said. The Cade funding must also be restored in the governor’s budget in order to satisfy MACC’s concerns with the bill. “We have to have assurances of buffering this fiscal impact,” he said in a phone interview.

The House Appropriations Committee voted earlier this week to restore a $26.6 million proposed cut to the Cade formula and the Senate plans to do the same, Guzzone, the chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee, said in a phone interview.

Collective Bargaining in the University System of Maryland

On the Senate floor Tuesday, lawmakers debated a proposal that would require the chancellor of the University System of Maryland to act on behalf of all the system’s institutions in all aspects of collective bargaining.

Across USM’s 12 institutions, there are currently 15 different contracts that get negotiated, said Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill. When an individual campus reaches an agreement with a bargaining unit, it must then get approved by the system-wide chancellor. If rejected, the bargaining process starts over again.

“What we have is an incredibly inefficient system, where there is constantly, across the multiple institutions, bargaining going on working its way up and down the food chain,” Kramer said. “It’s expensive.”

While Kramer said his bill aims simply to consolidate the bargaining process at the top, some lawmakers contended that a centralized approach could dampen the voice of university presidents in the decision making process.

“Their heartburn is that they have felt that they’re out of the loop — the presidents of the universities of the small colleges,” Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s) said.

Kramer reassured senators that the chancellor would gather the input of the president of the affected institution before making final decisions. “It just cuts out a lot of the in-between red tape that costs everybody money. It costs the institution money, it costs the bargaining units money, and it delays and defers the process for the employees,” Kramer said.

Debate on the measure is expected to resume Wednesday.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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