November-December 2020


Once dominant, Montgomery County’s public employee unions have seen their clout wane. Leaders are plotting a comeback.

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Gino Renne, who heads a union representing a majority of Montgomery County government employees, in his Gaithersburg office. Photo by Liz Lynch

It was classic Gino—the public display of displeasure he has utilized often while representing a large portion of the Montgomery County government workforce for more than a third of a century.

This past May, when county Councilmember Hans Riemer was among a council majority to vote down a three-year contract negotiated with Gino Renne’s union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 MCGEO, Renne responded with a picket line and “drive-by” with dozens of cars at Riemer’s Takoma Park residence.

“This is two years in a row that he’s voted against the county workforce,” Renne—whose union represents more than 5,300 of the county government’s nearly 9,300 full-time employees—declared on the scene. The year before, when Riemer was one of two councilmembers to oppose a one-year contract with MCGEO, Renne responded with a video and online ad on the union’s Facebook page with “Hypocrite” emblazoned across Riemer’s image.

It’s the type of jawboning county councilmembers, county executives and high-ranking appointees have been subjected to over the years by Renne—referred to by both friends and foes simply as “Gino,” as if they were alluding to a rock star or hurricane. It has often occurred as members of Renne’s union, wearing their trademark yellow T-shirts, jam into the hearing and conference rooms of the Council Office Building in Rockville to back up the boss.

“You know, you’re making it impossible to do business with you,” Renne told then-County Executive Ike Leggett, with a journalist in earshot, after a 2011 county council hearing at which Leggett, a one-time ally, supported the rollback of a union benefit at the height of the Great Recession.

“I don’t care if politicians like me—the fact of the matter is that I don’t like most of them,” Renne says, even though many of those politicians say the self-described “immigrant kid” from the “rumble-tumble” city of Pittsburgh can turn on the charm when the occasion calls for it. One insider describes Renne, a onetime Montgomery County deputy sheriff, as “good cop and bad cop in the same package.”

Renne adds: “I work for my members. They pay me to protect their wages, benefits and working conditions, and help advance the economic interests of their families. …I don’t really care who you are: You bring harm to my members, I’m going to find a way to get around you.”

If Renne often has succeeded in prodding—and perhaps even intimidating—the county’s political establishment into giving him his way, he is still trying to find a way around Riemer a decade after Riemer was initially elected with the backing of MCGEO. Renne was first elected to run the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, the forerunner to today’s UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, in 1983—a year before collective bargaining was extended to most county employees via referendum.

During his first day in office in December 2010, Riemer cast a committee vote in favor of changing the county’s collective bargaining laws in a way that wouldn’t meet with Renne’s approval. Immediately after the vote, Renne walked up to Riemer and, again within earshot of the media, snarled, “You’re going to be a one-termer, pal.”

Though he has been reelected twice since then without MCGEO’s backing, Riemer doesn’t downplay the clout that Renne has long exercised.

“Gino controlled the county—and that has started to slip away from him, but Marc obviously brings it back,” Riemer says. That’s a reference to County Executive Marc Elrich, who narrowly won the 2018 Democratic primary “thanks to our shoe leather,” as Renne crowed afterward, and who negotiated generous wage packages with MCGEO and other county unions during his first two years in office.

But if a reliable ally now occupies the county executive’s office, Renne is confronting challenges akin to what he faced in the Great Recession of a decade ago, when a cratering of county revenues resulted in MCGEO and the unions representing police and firefighters being forced to forgo four years of cost-of-living raises and three years of wage hikes tied to length of service.

Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, addressing members in November 2019.Pphoto provided by MCEA

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, reports by the council’s staff contended that declining revenues for county government made the growth of wages and benefits, which comprise about 80% of a nearly $6 billion annual budget, unsustainable at past rates. (About half of the budget goes to the Montgomery County school system, where personnel expenses represent 90% of costs; in the county government overall, about two-thirds of the budget is directed to employee compensation.)

According to a 2011 report by the county council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, revenue for the county budget grew by an annual average of 6% from fiscal year 2002 to fiscal year 2011. The same report projected that annual revenue growth would slow to 3% over the six years following fiscal year 2011, and that estimate turned out to be on target, with the annual rate from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2020 calculated at 2.85%.

Another council memorandum in December 2019, three months before the outbreak of the pandemic, predicted annual revenue growth would continue to drop, and that the county could see a “five-year cumulative budget shortfall of nearly $200 million” if total wage and benefit costs continued to grow at the rate of the five previous fiscal years, when the growth was underwritten by tax increases and “unprecedented” reductions in employee retirement costs due to a booming stock market. Council budget analysts projected an average annual increase of 3.8% in wage and benefit costs from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2024, while noting that the county’s fiscal plan estimated only a 2.7% annual increase in revenue during that period.

“Decades ago, the county frequently had the fiscal means to do most of what it wanted. In this century, starting long before COVID-19, there’s been a growing mismatch between supply of revenue and demand for revenue,” says Steve Farber, who retired in 2018 after more than a quarter century as the county council’s chief adviser. “It’s a structural reality that both the county and the unions have to face. What is needed is an approach to employee salaries and benefits…and workforce size that comports with this reality.”

Renne pushes back against contentions by councilmembers and staff that a slowdown in revenue to the county makes recent wage and benefit increases unaffordable. “Whether or not wages and benefits are sustainable is directly related to your priority of [spending]. …That’s what frustrates me with this council,” he says. “The county has a history of hiding money, and spending money on every pet political project they want. But it’s amazing that every time it’s time to take care of the workforce, which is the reason for the quality of life in this county, they’re not affordable.”

Elrich says Renne’s support of his 2018 campaign pledge to restructure county government in order to free up revenue for new programs shows that the union chief is sensitive to the current budget situation. “I feel pretty strongly that [the union] understood—and Gino never gets credit for this—that…we were going to need to rightsize the county,” Elrich says. Referring to MCGEO, he adds, “Because if we run out of money, we run out of it for them.”

But as county councilmembers, some of whom are skeptical, await details of the restructuring exercise—which finally got underway in late August after being stalled by the inability of working groups to meet during the COVID-19 pandemic—Renne appears focused on doing battle with a council that has shown greater resistance to his will than many of its predecessors.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around, but there are a couple of things I want to do before I leave,” says Renne, who, at 66, is planning to serve another three-year term as union president that would take him to the end of 2023. He vows to “do whatever is necessary to restructure the composition of the county council and take it back to the days when…at least a solid majority [of it] actually cared about the workforce, and would extend earned respect to them through working collaboratively with their leadership.”

As he pursues this goal, Renne has been talking with Christopher Lloyd, president of the county’s other highly visible public sector union—the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), which represents more than 14,000 teachers and other non-supervisory educational professionals. About 95% of them are dues-paying MCEA members.

The talks appear to be an effort to resurrect a coalition sundered a decade ago by inter-union hostilities arising from jostling for scarce financial resources following the 2008 recession. And it comes as tensions are escalating between the MCEA and management at Montgomery County Public Schools.

“We’ve started chipping away at the notion of getting the band back together,” Renne says of his conversations with Lloyd in recent months. “I’ll thank this current council for one thing—it forced us to expedite the process.”

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer (center), pictured with Councilmembers Nancy Navarro and Tom Hucker, has been a leading target of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO over the past decade. Photo by David Asche

The type of cooperation among county government and school unions that Renne hopes to revive thrived for the better part of two decades, beginning in the late 1980s with the creation of the Montgomery County Public Employees Coalition (MCPEC). Initially organized with bylaws, officers and monthly meetings, MCPEC’s formal structure later gave way to a more informal coordination that broke down over the strains of the Great Recession.

“The public employee workforce in Montgomery County had optimal political influence during the years of MCPEC,” Renne says. “We impacted many a local election, and we got better deals at the table at the time.” And, in a reference to the officials in county government, he says, “We did not allow them to play one [union] off against the other.”

In addition to the two highest profile unions, the coalition included two other county government unions: Montgomery County FOP Lodge 35, which currently represents about 1,250 police officers, and IAFF Local 1664, currently with nearly 1,100 firefighters. On the MCPS side, there was SEIU Local 500, which represents about 9,500 support staff, as well as the 750-member Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals (MCAAP). In addition to the 5,300 full-time employees in the county government workforce, Renne’s union includes about 1,100 additional seasonal and temporary employees for whom representation is limited largely to wage issues.

From the start, there was little question that Montgomery County, as a predominantly Democratic jurisdiction populated by many who themselves were government employees just down the road in the District of Columbia, presented fertile territory for public sector unionization efforts.

“Part of it is the culture of Montgomery County: It is a place that has great respect for public employees…[and] for government,” says Scott Fosler, who served on the county council from 1978 to 1986, a period when the national labor movement was looking to expand its representation of public sector employees amid the decline of private sector, manufacturing-oriented unions.

Fosler, a former president of the National Academy of Public Administration, also points to a significant advantage enjoyed by public sector unions. “The big difference between the private unions and the public unions is that in the case of the public unions, they’re also voters, and have a say in electing the policymakers and the managers,” Fosler notes.

MCGEO records show that a majority of its members, about 4,000, are currently on the Montgomery County voter rolls; the MCEA says about 60% of its members, about 8,300, reside in the county. Beyond providing a potential bloc of votes in traditionally low-turnout primaries, this membership can also be marshaled for door knocking on behalf of candidates and get-out-the-vote activities.

“For anybody who’s running for office in Montgomery County, it’s very hard to get elected if you’re not a Democrat,” Fosler says. “So you have to run in the Democratic primary and you need union support or, if you don’t have union support, you need a lot of other support someplace else. The combination of those two things [gives] public employees and unions a great deal of political power.”

From the outset, such clout traditionally made for chummy relationships between county policymakers and the unions, notwithstanding recently strained relations between MCGEO and the county council.

Gail Ewing, chief of staff to the late Esther Gelman, a councilmember in the 1980s, recalls Gelman, a major union ally, holding frequent sessions in her office with leaders of the police and fire unions, “laughing and carrying on and…formulating what it was they would do.” Gelman and her husband, Norman, would write letters for the union officers to publish in local newspapers “to make sure they were saying the right things,” recalls Ewing, a councilmember herself from 1990 to 1998.

Tom Manger was quickly schooled in local political folkways when he became Montgomery County’s police chief in 2004 after a half-decade running the department in Fairfax County, Virginia, a “right-to-work” state not known for influential unions. “I would have conversations with councilmembers, and the councilmembers would call the [FOP] union president and share what I said the next day,” Manger says.

Several years later, Manger convinced Leggett to push to end so-called “effects bargaining,” which, under the collective bargaining law for police passed in the early 1980s, had established an internal process for the union, the Fraternal Order of Police, to negotiate over the effects of management decisions. “When I got [to Montgomery County] and looked at the contract, I said, ‘My God, what’s happened to management rights?’ And [I was told] that they were all negotiated away—when the county couldn’t afford to give them a pay raise, they would negotiate away management rights,” Manger recalls.

The decision to do away with effects bargaining was approved in a 2012 voter referendum, followed by an FOP lawsuit and protest demonstrations by the police and other county government unions. Walter Bader, a former FOP Lodge 35 president who remains on the union’s board, complains that the end of the process “increased the temperature between management and the FOP” while increasing costs for both sides “because now we litigate things out.”

The unanimous vote of the county council to do away with effects bargaining in 2011—prior to the referendum—was something of a rarity: Over the years, only a handful of councilmembers had opted to steer a course largely independent of the unions. Among them was Nancy Floreen, who, during four terms starting in 2002, almost always ran without labor endorsements.

“I have a different view than most people, because most of my colleagues were endorsed by the unions: To them, I’m sure the union support was essential,” Floreen says. “At least when I began, the unions were a major force politically in terms of volunteers and financial and physical support for candidates. …If you’re unknown, it’s really helpful—particularly to be on the Apple Ballot.”

The “Apple Ballot,” a flyer containing MCEA endorsements inside an image of a red apple, increased in influence during the first decade of the 2000s, rivaling The Washington Post editorial page as the most coveted endorsement among Montgomery County candidates, particularly those far down on the ballot and competing for voter attention.

The Apple Ballot actually had been in existence since the 1970s. But as the MCEA increasingly sought to cast itself as an entity fighting for the interests of parents and students as well as educators—as opposed to merely being concerned with its members’ wages and benefits—the union moved to elevate the visibility of the Apple Ballot. “We were very careful to not frame the message as being about the needs of teachers but rather about those of students and their potential contribution to our county’s economy,” says Jon Gerson, a veteran of local government and politics who was brought in by the MCEA in 2000 to fill a couple of roles, including overseeing the union’s political operations.

Known for his aggressive style, Gerson created friction both with candidates and other unions while making himself a frequent target of the Post’s editorial page. “Politics is a blood sport,” he says, “and as my mother used to say when I was a kid, if you want everybody to love you, sell ice cream.”

Before relinquishing the MCEA’s political portfolio in 2013 amid differences with the union’s leadership, Gerson was credited with boosting the visibility and influence of the Apple Ballot: Its design and words (“educator-recommended”) were trademarked, and the “Apple” was utilized on other materials throughout the year to enhance its brand recognition. In 2010, with county council and state legislative seats and board of education slots up for grabs, more than 83,000 Apple Ballots were sent out via direct mail, and another 100,000 were distributed at the polls on primary day.

The Apple Ballot continues to receive saturation distribution at polling places: MCEA officials say 60,000 were printed for the 2018 primary and another 100,000 for that year’s general election. But in recent years questions have been raised in political circles about whether “the Apple” still has the impact that it once did.

The Apple Ballot-endorsed candidate lost hotly contested board of education races in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and came in second in the first round of voting in 2018. The MCEA-backed candidate that year, Montgomery College administrator Karla Silvestre, managed to overtake her opponent, attorney Julie Reiley, in the November runoff for an at-large seat only after “everybody went all out to turn that around,” according to one source, including a late Silvestre endorsement from Leggett.

Some point to recent turnover in the MCEA ranks—the organization has had three different political directors since Gerson’s departure—in suggesting that the Apple has lost some of its juice. And while the MCEA says it continues to mobilize up to 500 teachers to distribute the Apple Ballot on election days, others say poll coverage has declined since off-year primaries—where most county and state legislative offices are decided—were moved to late June, when school is over and a number of teachers are out of the area.

At the same time, the unions’ influence over the county’s predominant political party has ebbed. Ewing says the unions “were so much a part of the Democratic central committee” when she served on the county council in the 1990s. “The majority of officeholders were Democrats, and whatever the unions wanted, that’s what the central committee went with and, therefore, the elected officials tended to go with whatever they did.”

But current county Councilmember Gabe Albornoz, recalling his six years on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC), says he spent much of his time as chairman in 2013-14 trying to mend fences after the committee voted to back the referendum that repealed effects bargaining, prompting MCGEO and other unions to throw up a picket line at the Democrats’ 2013 annual spring ball. “Overall, the coalitions have not been there in the way they were before,” Albornoz says. “I think the Democratic Party as a whole has not been as organized as it has been in the past. It’s not just the unions.”

MCGEO also has had a mixed scorecard in electing its county council choices in recent years, even as Renne vows to “restructure the composition” of that body. In 2018, MCGEO endorsed six candidates for nine council seats, and three were elected. Two of them, at-large Councilmember Will Jawando and District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker, backed MCGEO’s position when a council majority voted down raises for the county government unions in May.

In 2014, only two of five candidates endorsed by MCGEO captured council seats. That election also featured a bid by MCGEO to oust District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner in a Bethesda/Chevy Chase-based jurisdiction where the union has less of a presence than elsewhere in the county. MCGEO’s candidate, Duchy Trachtenberg, lost to Berliner by a nearly 4-1 ratio.

“The emperor has no clothes—but he makes it work,” says Berliner, who was elected to the council three times without MCGEO’s backing. However, the gibes at Renne are tempered by expressions of grudging respect.

“I think Gino has been an extraordinary figure—not without controversy on many levels. And he plays hard,” says Berliner, now retired from politics and living in Colorado. “You have to tip your hat to the guy because he is very effective. …There is a personal power about him.”

In 1986, during her first run for county council, Ewing attended a hearing to advocate for binding arbitration as the council was crafting legislation to grant collective bargaining rights to county employees represented by MCGEO. “Leaving an impasse to an impartial judge is fair—fair to management, employees and the public,” Ewing declared.

But after winning election to the council on her second try four years later, Ewing reversed her stance as the county found itself buffeted by the recession of the early 1990s. “When it came to binding arbitration, it was as if the county was a bottomless pit,” she says now. “Whatever the unions wanted, they pretty much got, even in the face of the fact that we didn’t have the money—and the attitude seemed to be: ‘Raise your taxes, because this is what the employees need.’ ”

By the time Ewing arrived at the council, county police were covered by binding arbitration, and the practice was granted to the county’s firefighters in 1994, both moves approved by voter referendum. Binding arbitration was extended to county government employees represented by MCGEO in a 5-3 council vote in March 2000.

Under binding arbitration, if the county and the union fail to resolve their differences, an arbitrator approved by both sides can impose a settlement. Some county officials grumble that the limited pool of arbitrators who specialize in this type of work have tilted their findings to avoid being blackballed by national unions, a complaint that Renne, also a vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, dismisses as “absolutely ludicrous.”

Union members protest rejected pay increases at Councilmember Hans Riemer’s house in May. Photo by Dan schere

In a June 2016 memo to colleagues, Floreen pointed out that county government unions—police, fire and MCGEO—had won 16 of 20 arbitration decisions over the previous two decades, adding, “Although there are many possible explanations for these results other than the ‘system,’ I believe it is time to try a different approach.” But her legislation to modify the arbitration process, in part by replacing a single arbitrator with a three-person panel, failed to get out of committee amid vehement union opposition. “Ultimately, while you believe you need to change the relationship with our unions, this bill will destroy that relationship and ultimately county taxpayers will pay the price,” Renne said in testifying against the bill.

Three years earlier, a similar bill by then-District 3 Councilmember Phil Andrews encountered the same fate. “An effort to make quite a modest adjustment in the process brought down the wrath and fury of the unions,” Floreen says. “They had the advantage of the existing rules, and they would say, ‘What’s broken?’ ”

Has the structure of the collective bargaining system, combined with their political clout, yielded major dividends for the county government unions and those they represent? The record is mixed.

Pay increases for the county workforce have been generous over the past two decades when measured against both the regional cost-of-living index and the private sector workforce nationwide, according to annual statistics compiled by Montgomery County’s Office of Human Resources on county government employees other than police and firefighters.

Montgomery County general government employees not at maximum salary level received far larger increases than the private workforce average during an eight-year period ending in fiscal year 2008, including an increase of 14.8 percentage points more during the four-year period from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2008. This advantage for Montgomery County employees all but disappeared—to a mere seven-hundredths of a percentage point—during the cutbacks of the recession from fiscal years 2009 to 2012. But it reappeared during the past eight years, including an increase of 10.3 percentage points more than their private sector counterparts during the four-year period from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2020.

Montgomery County is also more generous than many private employers in continuing to offer retiree health benefits. At the end of 2018, 5,456 county government retirees were participants: About one-third of the current enrollees are under 65 and not yet eligible for Medicare. While many of the participants are former police officers and firefighters who can retire after 25 and 20 years, respectively, other county employees are eligible to retire starting at age 45 contingent upon their length of service.

“Retiree health is a fast-disappearing benefit in the private sector and has decreased in the public sector as well,” says a 2019 report from the county council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, which cites Kaiser Family Foundation data that the proportion of large employers with such plans had declined from 66% in 1988 to 18% in 2018.

In fiscal year 2020, more than 4% of Montgomery County’s tax-supported operating budget went to support the retiree health program, even though more than $300 million in scheduled payments to the program was held back over four fiscal years through 2020 as county officials sought to close holes in the budget.

More pertinent to the county’s ability to attract and retain top-quality employees is how pay scales measure up against neighboring jurisdictions.
“The comparisons that are relevant are what do other governments do, and what are the taxpayers getting?” Riemer says. “I think no matter how you look at it, our county workforce is very well taken care of. ” For his part, Renne acknowledges, “We are relatively equal towards surrounding jurisdictions.” But he adds, “There are some glaring differences.”

For teachers, the fiscal year 2020 comparison compiled by the Washington Area Boards of Education shows Montgomery County with the highest average teacher’s salary—slightly more than $83,200—among 10 area systems, including Prince George’s County and eight in Virginia. Union sources see this as an indication that Montgomery County is hanging on to veteran teachers. However, for categories such as starting and maximum salaries, Montgomery was in the middle of the pack—third and fourth in two categories of starting salaries, and sixth of 10 in maximum salary.

Renne, whose union regularly compiles comparative salary data in advance of negotiations, cites the example of the county’s RideOn bus operators, who are represented by MCGEO. He says they will earn about $200,000 less over the course of a career than their counterparts driving for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). “What the taxpayers [in Montgomery County] need to understand is that they’re paying to train for WMATA,” he says. “We’re losing them left and right because they know they can make more money down there.”

Elrich points to a similar problem with police officers. “This is huge because our recruitment classes are down, the public perception of policing is not the most favorable thing in the world—and we’re asking people to take really difficult jobs,” he says.

In fact, the latest available comparisons for entry-level police officers from the Office of Human Resources show officers on the Montgomery County police force as second in the region in pay—$800 below the starting salary in Howard County. But police sources say pay packages go beyond salary to include such factors as uniform allowances and the ability to take a police car to and from home.

The county to which Montgomery is most often compared—due to its similar size and demographics—is Fairfax County, Virginia. While Fairfax lacks collective bargaining due to Virginia’s right-to-work laws, all of its county government employees are eligible for a couple of fringe benefits—a deferred retirement option plan (DROP) and a defined benefit pension—that aren’t available to Montgomery County employees represented by MCGEO.

In Montgomery County, DROP plans, which allow an employee to postpone retirement for up to three years while earning both a salary and interest on a pension, are limited to police and firefighters. And since 1994, new employees in the MCGEO bargaining unit have been covered by a defined contribution pension—the public counterpart of a 401(k)—rather than a fixed pension.

MCGEO’s agreement to shift to a defined contribution system in 1994 may be one of the few times when county negotiators got the better of Renne at the bargaining table. It was Renne’s first negotiation after the distraction of his ultimately successful but heated campaign to spin off UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO into a freestanding entity. And coming off three years with no raises during the Gulf War recession, the MCGEO membership was putting a priority on a pay increase.

“That was a matter of opportunity, that whole damn scenario,” Renne says of his original concession on the defined contribution plan. “We weren’t as prepared as we otherwise could or should have been, and the county took advantage of an opportunity.” He adds with a smile, “I might have done the same if I were them.”

Renne continues: “Over time, one thing I’ve been extraordinarily forceful over is to undo as much of that as possible.” He won an agreement during subsequent contract negotiations for the creation of the Guaranteed Retirement Income Plan (GRIP), designed to ensure participants a 7.25% annual return regardless of the economy, and has pushed to enable more of his members to shift to that plan, in which 2,100 are now enrolled.

While Renne was outmaneuvered by the county a quarter of a century ago, the defined contribution plan for MCGEO members has since yielded county budget savings of several hundred million dollars. But the county was forced to take on a large pension obligation in 2012 when the Maryland General Assembly voted to shift part of the obligation for teachers’ pensions to the counties. Since then, the so-called “pension shift” has cost the county almost $456 million, including $61 million for the current 2021 fiscal year, according to county council budget data.

The MCEA, after initially opposing the shift, supported it as part of a deal to strengthen the “maintenance of effort” law designed to prevent year-to-year cuts in local education funding on a per-pupil basis.

Coming amid the dramatic shrinkage of county revenues during the Great Recession, that episode escalated the conflict between the county employee and school unions, tensions that Renne and Lloyd are now discussing ways to heal.

“The unintended consequence of maintenance of effort is that it prioritized some county services over others,” Lloyd says. “I hear Gino when he says, ‘My people feel sometimes like they’re second class to teachers.’ There are a lot of bad feelings on people’s parts about how things have transpired. We’re seeking to try to thaw those relationships to the benefit of everybody.”

As MCGEO and the MCEA deal with many Montgomery County-centric concerns, they are also facing challenges that transcend county borders.
One such challenge, during an era of declining union membership, comes amid resentment toward union wages and benefits from nonunion workers whose salaries have not kept up with costs—an issue compounded by the economic dislocation of the current pandemic.

“We know that’s out there,” Renne says. “There was a time in this country where we were about 30-35% unionized, where you didn’t have these discussions amongst workers. The conversation should not be about lowering the floor; the conversation should be about how do we raise everybody up.”

With an apparent eye to such a sentiment, MCGEO—for the first time in advance of a contract negotiation—did a mass mailing in early 2020 to promote itself to voters. “We are social workers. We are bus operators. We are school nurses. We are public safety,” the mailing reads, accompanied by pictures of MCGEO members. “We take care of you and your family. Tell the County Council: Respect our work! Respect our voice! Respect our union contract!”

Fosler, the former county council member and longtime student of government, offers a word of caution to the unions going forward. “The thing you’ve always got to be careful of—and this is something I hope has been learned in the labor movement, in both the private sector and the public sector—is that if you really mobilize all your strength, and it turns out that you’ve got so much strength that you’re undermining the basic support of the people who helped set up the system, it’s counterproductive,” he says. “And you’re going to get political pushback.”

Louis Peck has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national level for four decades. He can be reached at