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Commentary Working & the Economy

Jimmy Tarlau: Many Workers in Md. Don’t Have the Right to Form a Union. That Needs to Change

Union photo.

Most people think Maryland is a state where all workers have full union rights. Unfortunately, this is not true. Thousands of public employees in our state do not have the right to form a union. Even if they want to form a union, it is not legal for them to form a union and negotiate with their employer.

Public workers in Gaithersburg have no more rights than public workers in Hattiesburg, Miss. Why is this true?

Most Northern states have collective bargaining laws in place that allow public workers to form a union and be recognized by their employer if they show that a majority of the workers want to join a union. Many Southern states have laws that do not allow public workers to form unions and negotiate with their employers.

Maryland is one of only three states which has no statewide law but allows every jurisdiction to decide whether they want to have collective bargaining or not. The result is that 90% of local jurisdictions do not have any law that allows public workers to have a union. Some of the biggest municipalities where public workers do not have union rights are Gaithersburg, Hagerstown, Salisbury, Cumberland, Hyattsville and New Carrollton. This is also true for a majority of Maryland counties.

This should be unacceptable in Maryland.

There are thousands of other public employees who do not have collective bargaining rights, including faculty and graduate student employees at public colleges and universities, workers employed by special districts libraries and many state workers who are not covered under the current collective bargaining statutes.

In 1949, the International Labor Organizations Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Act declared the right of collective bargaining as an essential element in the freedom of association. Collective bargaining is a voluntary process through which employers and workers discuss and negotiate their relations, in terms and conditions of work.

Over the past few years, the Maryland General Assembly has made token steps to expand collective bargaining in the public sector. This year, the legislature passed a bill that expanded to workers at community colleges, but there are still thousands of public workers who do not have the fundamental right to form a union and bargain a contract, and these incremental changes will take years if not decades to cover all public employees.

It is time for this to change.

Next year’s General Assembly should pass comprehensive public bargaining legislation that extends basic labor rights to all of Maryland’s public employees. We should be embarrassed that Maryland workers do not have the fundamental right to form a union and negotiate a contract.


The writer is a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, a longtime union organizer and the founder of the People’s Lobbying Group, which does pro-bono lobbying in Annapolis.


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Jimmy Tarlau: Many Workers in Md. Don’t Have the Right to Form a Union. That Needs to Change