Could a Wisconsin-style union backlash happen in Maryland? It should

Maryland is known as a strong union state, and it would seem improbable to Marylanders that the current battle in Wisconsin could be replicated here. Maryland’s budget deficit is less pronounced than that of Wisconsin, though its combined state debt and pension deficits place it among the top 20 states in debt burden. It retains its triple A bond rating largely because of constitutional provisions that are being eroded and because its electorate has many public workers not resistant to new taxation.

The Wisconsin controversy has been framed as a controversy about money. As Clive Crook of the London Financial Times has pointed out, underneath it there are more important issues concerning the quality of public services. Because Maryland’s governor has indulged its unions, the governance issues will ultimately manifest themselves here in virulent form.

Marylanders need instruction in how entrenched the state’s teachers’ unions are:

1. Eleven counties, including all the more populous ones, allow unions to collect “agency fees” from nonmembers, generating huge war chests. While in theory such fees are not supposed to be used for political purposes, a famous lawsuit in Washington state revealed that nearly 80 percent of “agency fees” are in fact so used. A smaller number of counties allow check-offs for political action committees; all allow check-offs for union dues.

2. The State Board of Education has only qualified authority over teacher certification. A special board, eight of whose 24 members are named by unions and six of whom are from teachers’ colleges, can only be over-ridden by a three-fourths vote of the State Board. Thus, with only narrow exceptions, qualified scientists must take nearly a year of “education” courses to be eligible to teach in Maryland schools, and two years of such courses are required for even the most successful teacher to become a principal. By statute, superintendents, except in Baltimore City, must have two years of graduate work in education.

3. Under a law signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley last year, another special board, two of whose five members are named by unions, has the last word in resolving impasses in school labor negotiations.

4. Local union contracts impose maximums on the length of the school year, limitations originally derived from the needs of agricultural societies

5. Maryland’s charter school law is one of the few that binds charter school teachers to union contracts, and it provides few checks against refusal of applications by self-protective county boards. There are only a handful of charter schools outside of Baltimore City. Experimentation with “virtual schools” and distance learning is limited by a law binding employees to union contracts

6. Although as a condition of “Race to the Top” federal aid Maryland purportedly extended the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years, the legislation actually contracts the probationary period by providing that teachers cannot be removed without a year of “mentoring,” which can be extended for a second year (the adequacy of “mentoring” being a potential issue for grievance arbitration).

7. Contracts limit the length of the school day – not unreasonably, as many teachers have children of their own. However they also require that teachers be given three to six hours a week of “preparation time,” a euphemism for time off; senior teachers contrive to have their “prep time” at the end of the school day. A most revealing uproar ensued when the Baltimore City superintendent proposed that a portion of “prep time” be devoted to teacher training.

8. Contracts severely limit teacher attendance at PTA meetings, in some counties to two hours per year; and at post-school meetings, frequently to one hour a month. One does not expect this from people who want to be recognized as professionals. Contracts bar teachers from cafeteria duty, playground duty, detention duty and the duplication of teaching materials. Evaluations and observations are severely limited; only a handful of teachers are ever found to be incompetent.

9. In all but three counties, third-party arbitrators, rather than the local board of education, are given the last word in grievance proceedings. There is a three-to-five step grievance procedure, making discipline of tenured teachers all but impossible. Out of a tenured force of more than 5,600, no more than two Baltimore City teachers were fired for cause, per year, between 1984 and 1990.

10. Only two or three county contracts allow extra pay for teachers in scarce disciplines. Except in Baltimore City, there are only rudimentary and token merit pay provisions. There are, instead, lockstep annual increases based on seniority – all but unknown in the private sector and particularly galling in periods of widespread private unemployment. In most counties (but not Baltimore City and Montgomery), these continue until the 30th year, under-rewarding younger teachers acquiring families and mortgages, and escalating pension costs.

11. In most counties other than Montgomery, layoffs and transfers are on the basis of seniority. Good, young teachers are let go in preference to bad, older ones; experienced teachers are allowed to gravitate to the least troublesome schools.

12. Teachers are locked in to their existing unions. There can be only two bargaining units in each county, one for teachers and one for other staff. This guarantees against different salary schedules for high school teachers or those in scarce disciplines. Representation elections may be held only once every two years. The insurgent union must obtain the signatures of 20 percent of teachers within 90 days of the election date. To make sure it cannot do so, almost all contracts give the incumbent union monopoly access to the employee communication system. Thus, county teachers are afflicted with the reactionary Maryland State Education Association rather than the more progressive American Federation of Teachers.

13. Except for a very limited number of extremely troubled schools, no provision is made for any community involvement in school governance. Union contracts severely limit the use of volunteers in schools.

14. Prevailing wage laws have been extended to the state school construction program, escalating the cost of new schools by 10 percent to 15 percent.

15. Large portions of school budgets are expended not on teaching but on the provision of extravagant “Cadillac” health plans and retiree health benefits with very small deductibles and co-payments, many of them administered by unions. (The health professions, not teachers, derived an inordinate portion of the benefits from the Thornton Plan.)

Small wonder it is that an increasing percentage of the state’s parents – and indeed, a large number of public school teachers – spend tens of thousands of dollars sending their children to schools whose faculties enjoy none of these allegedly necessary safeguards. A Maryland electorate properly informed of these union abuses is not going to sing “Solidarity Forever.”

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research Inc. E-mail:

Posted in: Education, Education