ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
Union advocate and city finance employee Barbara Dahan carries a promotional sign outside the Ocean City convention center during polling on Tuesday.OCEAN CITY TODAY/ZACK HOOPES(Nov. 9, 2012) Ocean City’s voters have rejected, by a nearly twoto one margin, the proposed amendment to the city’s charter that would allow collective bargaining rights for the general employees.
Tuesday’s ballot initiative saw 931 votes in favor of the union option, and 1,723 opposed. But municipal union proponents say that despite not winning over the voters the first time around, they have set themselves up to continue the fight.
“We did real well. We did what we expected to do last night,” said Public Works employee and union supporter James Moxley.
The drive for collective bargaining began in earnest this May, when a storefront was established in the Food Lion shopping center on 118th Street for an organization calling itself the Ocean City Employee Coalition. While the group itself consists of city workers, organizers said that the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which has helped organize collective bargaining for public employees around the state, was sponsoring and coordinating the union drive.
The MCEA is affiliated with the larger American Federation of Teachers, itself an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Organizers said that the AFT was providing the bulk of support, particularly in recruiting outside signature gatherers to canvass during times that city employees themselves could not.
While Ocean City’s police and fire departments are unionized, its general employees are not. The city’s charter prohibits collective bargaining with any organization other than those representing the two departments. The charter can only be changed with the approval of City Council or the approval of the voters via referendum, which first requires a petition with the signatures of 20 percent of registered voters, per Maryland state law regarding municipal charter governments.
When the petition was submitted in July, its 1,579 legitimate signatures exceeded the minimum of 1,208, given that the city has 6,039 registered voters.
However, it appears that many city residents signed the petition in agreement with the right of employees to have the issue on the ballot, and not necessarily because they agreed with collective bargaining itself, given that only 59 percent of the number that signed the petition actually voted for the charter amendment.
Moxley attributed the reversal to several factors. One, he said, was the change of the municipal election date to match the national ballot, which appears to have roughly doubled the city’s voter turnout.
“Maybe people [who turned out primarily for the national election] weren’t as educated about the union movement,” Moxley surmised.
The highly contentious nature of the city’s election this year also appears to have been a doubleedged sword for the union push. Not only did vicious politics stoke voter turnout, but collective bargaining itself quickly become itself a political weapon between the City Council’s two factions, each blaming the other for employee dissatisfaction.
“In the next election, we shouldn’t have that,” Moxley said, referring specifically to candidate Jim Hall’s extensive anti-union advertising.
“Though we’ll still have to deal with the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, and the Chamber of Commerce,” he continued, referring to the city’s two largest business associations, both of which also came out against collective bargaining.
Despite the political storm being over, Moxley said that union proponents will continue to press the issue.
“I talked to some of the candidates for council yesterday, to let them know that we’re still going to go ahead with this, no matter what,” Moxley said. Despite the election this year of candidates who were less overtly anti-union, “two years, four years from now, we know there could be another employee-unfriendly council.”
“Equality doesn’t go away,” he added.
Still, 931 favorable votes gives employees a solid base on which to build in coming years. While the unionization of the city’s fire department was approved directly by the council in 2007, Ocean City’s Fraternal Order of Police only succeeded in gaining bargaining powers in 2002 after two unsuccessful referendums.
“We’ll be moving on in the future with the same deck. We’re going to try again,” Moxley said. “We have a meeting as early as next week to regroup.”