2020 | Government

Union members protest rejected pay increases at council member’s house

They marched, drove by Hans Riemer’s Takoma Park home on Saturday

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Members of Montgomery County unions and civic organizations protested in front of Council Member Hans Riemer's house in Takoma Park on Saturday following the council's decision last week to reject pay raises for workers.

Photo by Dan Schere

Members of Montgomery County’s county employee unions and civic organizations protested in front of Council Member Hans Riemer’s Takoma Park house on Saturday, following the council’s decision on Wednesday to reject raises for union employees.

Dozens of cars drove by Riemer’s house and about 40 people protested outside, organizers estimated. Takoma Park police were present during the protest.

The council voted 7-2 on Wednesday to reject raises in union contracts for Municipal and County Government Employees’ Organization (MCGEO Local 1994), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP Lodge 35) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF Local 1664). Altogether, the tax-supported cost of the contracts was $12.9 million in fiscal year 2021.

The council also voted on Wednesday to reject raises for nonunion employees.

Photo by Dan Schere

On Saturday, members of MCGEO, the Montgomery County Education Association, the Montgomery County Renter’s Alliance and other civic organizations marched in front of Riemer’s house and drove by in a procession while honking their horns.

“What do we want. Contracts. When do we want it. Now,” the protesters chanted.

Rosa Ortiz, a MCGEO member, told Bethesda Beat she worries the county’s workers will be hurt not having raises in the contracts during the health crisis.

“Bus drivers. We have cleaners. We have police. We have all these guys here … that’s why we’re out here. Defending worker’s rights and workers should get a little bit of a raise during this epidemic,” she said.

Elise Bryant, a member of the Communication Workers of America union, called the council’s decision “disgraceful.”

“County workers are the front-line essential workers. They deserve to be treated fairly,” she said.

Some county employees are currently receiving hazard pay. Workers who regularly interact with the public are getting $10 per hour extra and those who regularly come into the office are getting $3 per hour extra.

The contracts were negotiated before the public health crisis and were first rejected by the council on May 5. County Executive Marc Elrich then renegotiated the contracts with the unions and sent them to the council on Tuesday night, where they were once again voted down the next day.

Council members who voted against the increases said the county can’t afford them given a forecasted $600 million budget shortfall due to the economic downturn.

MCGEO President Gino Renne in an interview dismissed the $600 million estimate, calling it a “projected, made up number.”

“No one knows what the deficit is,” he said.

Renne said he thought the council could have been more open-minded during their negotiations.

“The problem is, they [the council] did not allow the unions the opportunity and extend the respect to the workforce that these men and women deserve to have an adult conversation about what the real numbers are, what the buffers are and how we walk through this together. That’s what we’re upset about,” he said.

Renne said MCGEO chose to demonstrate in front of Riemer’s house because the council member also voted against a pay raise for union employees last year.

“This is two years in a row that he’s voted against the county workforce,” Renne said.

Renne said MCGEO plans to hold more demonstrations in coming months.

Riemer, reached by phone on Saturday, said the economic downturn caused by the pandemic made it necessary to reject the contracts.

“It’s a tough time. We’re heading into one of the most difficult economic situations we’ve ever seen … and the council acted wisely to be very cautious,” he said.

Asked to respond to Renne’s comment that the revenue shortfall projections weren’t accurate, Riemer noted that the figures came from the county’s finance department.

“No one knows what real number is, but I think we know it’s not good. We’re in some very uncharted waters, and now’s the time to be cautious,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is add raises now and have to lay off employees in six months.”

The council, at its meeting on Thursday, supported cutting $69.3 million from the budget for fiscal year 2021, bringing the total to $5.9 billion. A final vote is expected May 21.

Riemer said a mid-year raise for workers might be possible later in the fiscal year, depending on the financial situation.

“The county council could decide that things don’t look as bad as we feared,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com