Binding Arbitration Finally Restored to County Unions
County police and fire unions won't walk to the negotiations table alone anymore.
Binding arbitration has been formally restored to Anne Arundel County’s public employee unions, nearly two years after it was dissolved.
When negotiations reach an impasse, a third party is called upon to assist in resolving the dispute. Since March 2011, Anne Arundel County's public safety employees have negotiated contracts through unions without a binding third-party decision maker.
But that all changed on Monday night with a unanimous County Council vote that rewrote the county rulebooks as if the binding arbitration rule changes had never occurred.
The Anne Arundel County Council rewrote county law to match a September ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that went in favor of binding arbitration. The ruling marked the end of a year-long court struggle between the county’s nine public safety unions and the county government.
That struggle began in March 2011, when the Anne Arundel County Council approved Bill 4-11, which ended up removing binding arbitration. That bill was modified by a line-item veto by County Executive John R. Leopold which removed provisions that would have retained a form of binding arbitration. A recent Anne Arundel County charter amendment removed the executive's line-item veto power—a change that was approved by voters in the November general election.
Leopold called the court's decision to overturn the legislation "unfortunate," in a prepared statement in September, adding that the interest of the unions may not always coincide with the taxpayers'.
"The legislation overturned by the Court of Appeals was proposed to enable the county to deny pay raises for some employees when other employees must take furloughs and a reduction in pay," Leopold said.
Anne Arundel County Councilman Jamie Benoit (D-4th District) of Crownsville said this was a victory for the county’s unions.
"They got everything back," Benoit said. "It was a big, big win for the unions."
Restoring binding arbitration evens the playing field during budget negotiations, said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of Fraternal Order of Police. He said it will also likely streamline the annual contract negotiations process, which begins in May.
Over the last two budget years of budget deliberations, Atkinson and his colleagues said they had sweat long hours in negotiations with the county without a third-party voice.
"During these battles, we couldn't agree how these negotiations would end, or how to even start them as far as ground rules," Atkinson said. "We're hoping this year will be a little different. It should be."
Restoring binding arbitration also makes the council legally bound to a May decision by an arbitrator to grant a 3-percent pay raise to 1,200 county union employees, amounting to $650,000.
The bill will go into effect in 2013, well before next year's contract negotiations begin.