OCEAN CITY – A large contingent of municipal employees have been weighing their options to unionize over the last year, including meeting recently with at least two City Council members and speaking with other elected officials to address the issue.
It was learned this week a document expressing the intent of general city employees to potentially create a union has been circulating throughout the town, and approximately 80 percent of employees have reportedly signed it.
Although the reported leaders of the effort did not speak with the media this week, sources contend the employees are concerned over the unpredictability of Ocean City government at this time. The recent 4-3 votes and the current division among the council are worrying the employees. The employees have privately pointed to last year’s move by the council majority to drastically alter the employee benefit structure as an example as well as the sudden removal of former City Manager Dennis Dare.
On Wednesday, Councilman Brent Ashley said he has not been contacted but has heard of the intent of employees to form a union. He pointed out that in order for general employees to unionize it would require a referendum to change the charter, which would have to receive the majority of the taxpayers vote by ballet to move forward. Before it could be placed on the ballot, a petition effort would need to be launched.
According to Ashley, the town charter states, “the town charter prohibits any union association group or collective bargaining agent from representing employees of the town except for those employees who are in the police department, or fire fighter EMT, or in the Fire Marshals office.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said she has been contacted and met with two employees. She said Human Resources Director Wayne Evans was also present at the meeting since he acts as the employee advocate for the town. She said that the employees disclosed that they were approached by two outside unions more than a year and half ago wanting to help them unionize but would not express their grievances until the group organized and elected representatives.
“I didn’t know about it a year and half ago and if they had gone through the channels I should have because the city manager at the time, Dennis Dare, was the bridge between the employees and us and I had not heard of their grievances,” she said. “They didn’t give me any feel for specifically this or that, and I really didn’t get into it because it is up to them if they want to unionize, not me. They have to go to the public to do it.”
Pillas said that through conversation with Evans and City Solicitor Guy Ayres there are two options in having general city employees become part of collective bargaining and that is either by asking the taxpayers for the right or by asking the council to include them.
“My answer to them was I represent the taxpayers and not for them to come to me to unionize the staff,” she said. “I don’t work for the staff, I don’t work for the government, I work for the taxpayers … and the taxpayer has to tell me what to do.”
Pillas pointed out the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) went through the petition to referendum process to gain the right to collective bargaining. The referendum failed in a previous election before being passed in a close vote. If general employees were to go through the same process, it may have similar results.
Council President Jim Hall confirmed he had also been contacted and met with one employee for about 10 minutes.
“Basically, they would like us to consider a union and my response to them was that would have to be a decision the voters would have to make,” he said.
Jim Hall was also not able to get any grievances out of the employee because he had been advised not to release any of the employee’s complaints.
“Well you have to tell someone a reason why you would like to unionize especially the voters, it’s their decision,” he said. “I don’t know what plans any of the employees or their union friends are talking about … I don’t know if this is something they want to move forward with or whether it is just exploratory or if they are going to come back to the council wanting to speak with us. The only thing I can say is if you have some grievances you certainly ought to come forward and let us know what they are.”
Jim Hall said he has not formed any kind of opinion on the matter because he at this point does not understand why city employees want to become a union.
“I suspect they are going to say it is because x, y, and z, and if they do, then I will certainly have an opinion as to I think there good reasons or as to I think they are well off base,” he said. “I work for the taxpayers. If the taxpayers decide they want a union in the town, I can caution them and say here’s my opinion on it but it is certainly up to the voters.”
Councilman Doug Cymek said he had also been contacted but turned down the offer to meet.
Ayres has reportedly instructed council members to not meet with the employees without counsel present.