Union leader reflects on history of labor relations in Montgomery County’s public sector
Renne’s tenure goes back four decades, spanning five county executives
Photo from MCGEO website
Editor’s note: He might not be a household name among most county residents. But for almost four decades, Gino Renne, head of the union that represents a majority of the Montgomery County government’s workforce, has been an influential — and intimidating — presence in the Executive Office Building and the County Council chambers in Rockville.
Besides serving as president of what is now United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, Renne, 66, is also a vice president of the UFCW International Union, with 1.3 million workers in the United States and Canada.
He recently sat down with contributing editor Louis Peck for an extensive interview, in conjunction with an examination of the history and role of Montgomery County’s public employee unions that appears in the November/December edition of Bethesda Magazine.
Following is an edited transcript, in Q&A format, of portions of the interview, in which Renne candidly discusses his union’s rise and the recent history of labor-management relations in Montgomery County’s public sector — and how he’s remained part of it for so long.
Bethesda Beat: You arrived in Montgomery County in the mid-1970s soon after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, working initially for what is today the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and later as a deputy sheriff. At one point, you contemplated running for county sheriff. How did you end up as a labor leader?
Renne: It’s funny how things happen to kind of derail your plans. I had no plans on pursuing labor as a career. I wanted to be a lawyer and/or get my law degree and potentially go into federal law enforcement. But then, in about 1979, my colleagues at the sheriff’s office convinced me to run for president of the sheriff’s association. That was the representation model back in those days for county government workers. The [deputy] sheriffs had their association, the nurses had an association, the libraries had an association.
The sheriff’s office at the time was pretty much a sleepy hole. We had no body armor. We had no meaningful equipment to keep us safe while we did our work. Our vehicles were essentially hand-me-downs from the police department. So there were a lot of substantive issues that needed to be addressed, and we started pushing them. We were met by significant management resistance because we were threatening the status quo. But we managed to penetrate it, and we made quite a bit of progress.
BB: At the outset of the 1980s, much of the county workforce was operating under a “meet and confer” system, which largely reserved decisions on compensation and other workforce-related matters to county officials. As a first step toward collective bargaining, you sought control of what was then the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (MCGEO).
Renne: MCGEO wasn’t a leadership body that really pushed the envelope with management. We felt strongly that we needed more oomph — we being the deputy sheriffs. We had some relationships with the folks in [the] corrections department, because I came out of corrections; there were some activists in the library department, the recreation department, and some nurses. We challenged MCGEO, we held an election, and MCGEO won. So we had to live with MCGEO. We attempted to channel our concerns through MCGEO, and the leadership at the time showed very little interest in taking on our cause. Finally, we made it clear that we had no choice but to wrest control of MCGEO and put it on a different path.
We had [another] election in 1983, and our slate takes over MCGEO. We got the keys to the office [in Rockville] and opened the door. There’s no furniture, there’s two phones in two small adjoining rooms, and boxes piled up. And we’re looking at each other and asking, “What the hell did we get ourselves into?” We moved from that point to build the infrastructure for a real union. The fundamental goal we knew we had to achieve was to gain collective bargaining. The police, the teachers, the [Service Employees International Union, representing support staff in the schools] had it. We got tired of having to settle for the crumbs when it was all said and done.
BB: In 1984, voters approved a ballot referendum to allow collective bargaining for the general county government workforce, and the County Council two years later approved legislation to set that up. In the meantime, MCGEO moved to affiliate with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400. How did a group of government employees come to ally itself with a local union largely representing supermarket workers?
Renne: We didn’t have the resources or the expertise to pursue the goals that we knew we had to achieve. It was clear we had to shop around for an organization that had the infrastructure and the political and economic resources to help us successfully gain collective bargaining. The only path was to get a ballot referendum passed and move forward from there. At the time, the mammoth [labor] organization in the Washington region was UFCW Local 400. It wasn’t a natural partnership, but we needed money and political leverage. That’s why it ended up being the UFCW. We entered into merger discussions, and we became UFCW Local 400 MCGEO. So we became the bargaining agent for the [county government] workforce.
BB: While you and Local 400 later had a rather acrimonious divorce, leading in 1993 to the creation of today’s UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, you have been president of the entity representing county government workers — excepting police and firefighters — for more than one-third of a century. You span the tenure of five county executives. To what do you attribute your longevity?
Renne: I don’t know what the magic has been. My members … know that I’m passionate about my work, about making their lives and their families’ lives better. I think they’ve been convinced of that from day one. I’ve never distanced myself from them. I came from them. I experienced takebacks during 1978 by a misguided [county] council while I was still at [the] corrections [department]. They reduced our health care, they reduced our pension benefits, they restructured our compensation system that ended up meaning we got less.
I’ve been challenged in two elections. Both times, I won by an 83 percent-plus margin. I’ve always been able to maintain their confidence and trust. I’ve never placed myself above my membership. To this day, to the best of my availability, I attend family gatherings when I’m invited, I attend weddings if I’m invited — and I am invited. I grieve with their families when we lose a brother or sister. I’ve always remained one of them.
BB: Both your friends and foes suggest part of your staying power has come from a willingness to employ hardball tactics, be it in confronting elected officials or holding public demonstrations to draw media attention.
Renne: I don’t deny that I can be a very tough guy and that my job requires that when warranted. … I’m an immigrant kid out of Pittsburgh. It was a tough town coming up — blue collar, steel workers, miners, truckers … and you had to be tough. And I come out of corrections — that’s not a profession for faint of heart folks. And then I was in law enforcement.
I prefer partnering with the politicians. But if you draw a line in the sand, and you become inflexible, and you put your interest before the interests of the people I represent — which, unfortunately, quite a few politicians on both sides of the aisle do — then I’m going to find a way to move you out of the way. My members … don’t pay me for my personality. They pay me to protect their wages, benefits and working conditions, and help advance the economic interests of their families. And I’ll do it by any means necessary — short of violence, of course.
I’m the old school person. If I’ve got a problem with you … I’m going to give you the common courtesy of coming to you directly. I’m not going to hide behind a tweet or a Facebook post. Too many politicians these days don’t have the courage to stand up and look people in the eye and explain to them why they’re inflicting harm on them — whether it be social [or] economic harm. And then there’s righteous indignation by these very people [toward] labor leaders and workers when they face them and want an explanation, and try to hold them accountable. If you’re that type of politician, you don’t deserve to be in public office.
BB: Shifting back to your ascent as a labor leader: When you first assumed the presidency in the mid-1980s of what is now UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, it coincided with the creation of the Montgomery County Public Employees Coalition (MCPEC). The latter was made up of the heads of a half-dozen county government and school unions, and survived for two decades. How significant a role did MCPEC play as collective bargaining took hold in county government?
Renne: The public employee workforce in Montgomery County — as a collective body of workers who are tasked and credited for the quality of life that the citizens of Montgomery County enjoy — had optimal political influence during the years of MCPEC. Why? Solidarity was unshakeable, collaboration was routine and frequent, planning and strategizing became our infrastructure. Every union knew what the other union was doing at the bargaining table. Every union knew the advances that were being made by individual unions in their respective negotiations — in real time. If I was bargaining and made a breakthrough that could help the other unions, I’d get on the phone that night and say, “Look, we just did this.” So we were a united family of workers.
When we created [MCPEC], it sent a shockwave through the Montgomery County political [structure]. [Then-County Executive] Sid Kramer was furious. He summoned me to his office and me, him and Lew Roberts, his [chief administrative officer], had quite a shootout in Sid’s office that day. Sid misinterpreted it — he felt it was an affront to his relationship with the unions, and it wasn’t that at all. It was a reckoning of the unions that we had more influence together than individually.
BB: Your union and the Montgomery County Education Association once had a close relationship. For a time, you shared office space — and you presented the teachers union with a plaque thanking it for its assistance as you worked to break away from Local 400 in the mid-1990s. More recently, you’ve been working with the current MCEA president, Chris Lloyd, to re-establish those ties. But those ties came undone — as did MCPEC — amid the Great Recession of a decade ago. What happened?
Renne: Doug Prouty [MCEA president from 2009 to 2015] — it was on his watch that MCPEC just blew up. And the reason was that he would not share the pain during the recession, where in the past we all did [on furloughs and other cost-saving measures]. In the past … that had all been done collectively. He wanted to be an island, so he became an island … and it strained our relationships. He was making inflammatory statements in the newspaper in terms of his putting a higher value on his membership than everybody else — insinuating that because his members were highly educated, that they shouldn’t take as much pain, and not understanding that [UFCW Local 1994] has equally educated people, as well. Social workers and librarians all have to have master’s degrees.
We went many years without any conversations [with the MCEA]. It was just like the Beatles — the band blew apart. Chris [Lloyd] came in and we started chipping away at the notion of getting the band back together. There are specific discussions, and we’re planning joint projects together that are on the drawing board. It’s clear that we have to get back together, and we will. I’ll thank this current County Council for one thing — it forced us to expedite the process. Because all the unions have come to understand and accept that this body is not a friend of labor.
BB: Didn’t changes to the “maintenance of effort” (MOE) law during that period — designed to prevent year-to-year cuts in school funding on a per-pupil basis — also play a part in the split? In 2012 and 2014, your union went so far as to endorse Board of Education candidates who mounted successful campaigns against rival candidates supported by MCEA.
Renne: That was an experiment on my part; we had nothing to lose. We were getting killed, and MOE kept being the reason for it. As president of this union — and all the other union presidents — we all have members who have children in the school system. [We] want an excellent school system. That’s not the issue. The issue is that there’s a finite amount of money, and it’s driven by MOE. There’s got to be something that balances the impact of that.
The problem is as we continue to fund the school system, all the other services are paying the price of that. … You can’t constantly, year after year, keep increasing the cost of a particular expense without finding a way to make sure those increases are actually making a difference in the classroom, because that was the intent of MOE. If there’s no accountability, and no checks and balances, then how do we know that every year they get more money, that the money is going to improve education? That’s the deficiency in MOE. There’s no balancing mechanism.
BB: Your long-time relationship with then-County Executive Ike Leggett appears to have been another casualty of the Great Recession.
Renne: I was the first labor leader ever to endorse his entry into politics [in 1986, when Leggett was elected to the first of four terms on the County Council]. Ike was an outstanding legislator. He was a brilliant political strategist. … But [as executive], he wouldn’t fight for what I hoped he thought was right.
After a public hearing at the council office building [in 2010], I went up to him. I wasn’t ugly about it, I just looked him in the eye and said, “Ike, you know, you’re making it impossible to do business with you.” Because he would back off on commitments more often than I ever expected from him. It was when they took away our phantom COLA [cost-of-living adjustment]. He went and testified and let it happen. (Editor’s note: In 2009, Leggett and county employee unions agreed to postpone previously negotiated wage adjustments due to the recession, but to calculate pension benefits as if the pay raises had been funded. However, the council voted to rescind this so-called “imputed COLA” plan a year later.)
BB: Ike Leggett recently attributed the strains in your long-time relationship to the episode a year later when, at the height of the Great Recession, he chose to disregard the results of binding arbitration over a new collective bargaining agreement — saying of the two of you, “I realized that when I was making that decision, our relationship would change.”
Renne: That became a fight over the integrity of collective bargaining, because he lost and then he chose to ignore the arbitrator’s decision. We had to go to court and the courts finally opined that no, if either side loses, you have to support the decision. … But it was just a procedural win. It was not binding on the council.
BB: In the wake of the Great Recession, there were unsuccessful proposals on the County Council to alter the binding arbitration process by replacing a single arbitrator with a three-person panel. Proponents argued that the proposals were modest changes in a process they contended had produced a disproportionate number of decisions favoring labor. But you asserted in testimony at the time that such moves would “destroy” the county’s relationship with the unions.
Renne: The reason I took that position was [that] they do not want to accept losses as legitimate losses. They want to make excuses about [the county] losing an arbitration because the process is tilted in favor of the union. Well, that is absolutely ludicrous. These are formal proceedings. It’s the evidence that determines the outcome — evidence that has to meet the criteria expressed in the law. … Unions don’t always win arbitrations. Unions win arbitrations when the evidence and the testimony is in their favor.
This area has some of the best and brightest and most renowned labor arbitrators in the business. I can name them; that’s all they do. In [proposing] a panel, they were demanding a retired judge. I’m sure they’re brilliant and well-versed in legal proceedings, but a retired judge has no experience or understanding of labor law. That is such a specialty area. So you’d be going in front of a panel that probably does not have the in-depth knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of labor law.
BB: Yours and other unions got the county executive you endorsed when Marc Elrich narrowly won the 2018 Democratic primary — “due to our shoe leather,” as you put it at the time. But the contracts you negotiated with him were either reduced or rejected by a County Council whose recent budget analyses question whether the historic rate of wage and benefit increases for the county workforce is sustainable. Is your membership going to have to lower its expectations in the foreseeable future, even absent the financial impact of the pandemic?
Renne: I have always said that, whether or not wages and benefits are sustainable is directly related to your priority of [spending]. I strongly believe that there is an awful lot of unnecessary spending in the county’s budget. It’s in all sorts of different areas. The purchase of supplies and equipment that we may not need, in bloated management bureaucracy that is no longer needed — and I question if it ever was. There are all sorts of things that money is spent on that I believe could be rethought and reprioritized — that will make more room in the budget for the quote-unquote “issue of sustainability” going forward. We’re short on police, fire, social workers and 911 operators. Yet, the council adds new positions to their staff. It’s an issue of priority, not an issue of sustainability.
What frustrates me with this current council [is that] they refuse to have an adult conversation about what the true needs of the community are … to engage the unions on how to reprioritize our spending and how do we make ourselves more sustainable. None of them have done that. And what they think are the true needs are not aligned with what the real needs are. None of them live in challenged neighborhoods. There’s no connection between their world and the world of some of the forgotten communities in this county — and we have quite a few, and they’re growing. When was the last time they were in those communities? I think that’s a legitimate question.
BB: After 40 years, is there a succession plan for when you decide it’s time to leave?
Renne: There’s a succession plan. We’re not going to play that card yet because then people will start posturing. I’m healthy, I’m energetic and I still love what I do. I think I’m roughly within the five-year ballpark [for retirement], give or take a year or two. Here’s one thing I do know: Far too many labor leaders stay too long, and you’re doing your institution and your membership a disservice. I don’t think I’m there yet. My staff and my members will tell me if I am.
There are a couple of things I want to do before I leave: whatever is necessary to restructure the composition of the County Council and take it back to the days when the council members, or at least a solid majority, actually cared about the workforce. I’m concerned about how much more damage collective bargaining can endure at the hands of these folks. … How do we rebuild worker power in Montgomery County? The quickest and most effective way to do that is to get all the unions back to the table, working together.