Laurel Department of Public Works fight to unionize facing delay
By James Matheson
A group of nearly 30 city employees with matching medallion yellow T-shirts forced over their weathered high-visibility coveralls and Carhartt jackets assembled in the audience of the Laurel Municipal Center on March 27 to face the men in suits and ties who represent them.
City worker after city worker approached the podium to address the Laurel City Council, pleading to have collective bargaining legislation, which already exists for law enforcement in the city, extended to their department.
This was the second city council meeting in which the employees of the Laurel Department of Public Works gathered in an attempt to convince the council to grant them unionization and collective bargaining rights, according to Raymun Lee of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local Union 1994.
The department employees returned once again in full force, wearing their uniforms, to attempt to convince the city council of their case on April 24, this time supported by an increased number of UFCW workers whom they wish to unionize with, according to city councilmember Martin Mitchell (At-Large)
“You have the power to do more than just say you support public works. Today we ask you to go above and beyond for us just as we do for your constituents every day and show your support with your actions,” said Kate Wright, administrative assistant with the Laurel Department of Public Works and 14-year resident during the March 27 council meeting.
According to Mitchell, a city worker and union representative first approached him in December to voice the desire of the public works department to unionize.
The Laurel Police Department has had the ability to collectively bargain since September 2012, when a resolution was approved by Mayor Craig A. Moe, according to Charter Resolution Number 158.
“What is so complex about this, when you already have collective bargaining law in place for one specific group? All you have to do is amend that legislation and expand it to the rest of the workforce,” said Lee, special assistant to the president in field services and organization at UFCW.
In an interview, Mitchell said that the city workers’ fight was originally put on hold in December until this past January for an investigation by the administration.
“One of the things that I said is ‘what do they need to investigate?’ Because at the end of the day, we all agree that this is something that should happen,” Mitchell said.
According to Mitchell, the discussion concerning passing legislation for the Laurel Department of Public Works to unionize was then further postponed until June.
“We have four [councilmembers] who spoke publicly saying they support unionization,” city of Laurel Council President Brencis D. Smith (Ward 2) said.
On March 1, the mayor wrote a letter to the councilmembers requesting to have more time to discuss the matter with a labor attorney and his senior administration staff. The majority of the council agreed to give Moe and the administration until June, according to an email from Smith.
“We needed to decide which way we wanted to move. Do we want to take the piece of the code that we did for the police department and add public works? Did we want to try to write a separate piece of the code? Did we want to try to combine them? Those things we just weren’t sure about until we were able to talk to a labor attorney,” Moe said.
According to Mitchell, the council has since hired labor attorney Leonard Lucchi, of O’Malley Miles Nylen & Gilmore.
“Let me make this clear, there was no postponement. No nothing. We asked for time because you have to get an attorney on board. You have to do your research,” Moe said.
The first reading of a charter resolution for the Department of Public Works to unionize was held on April 24, with a second reading and vote scheduled for May 8, according to Mitchell and Smith.
“I am confident it will pass on May 8, 2023,” wrote Smith in an email. “After it passes, the next thing to be done is for the city to rewrite the labor code. The process is and was always moving forward.”
This legislative process precedes a summer recess in August as well as mayoral and city council elections in November.
“Like this council, you [public works] are top priority to protect our citizens and make it a safer city where our citizens can live and work. And along with you and the police department, you are essential in a lot of things,” said Councilmember Carl DeWalt (Ward 1).
According to public works employee Lloyd Holloway, the Laurel Department of Public Works is responsible for blue-collar work ranging from laying asphalt and tree service to painting road lines. Holloway also said that the laborers at the department collect the city’s trash and recycling daily.
Holloway shared his frustration when discussing new rules being created in the department, including one that forced sanitation employees to work longer hours after being exposed to harsh weather on their garbage routes.
In 2017, Marcus Colbert of the Laurel Department of Public Works was crushed by an SUV and died as he loaded trash into the rear of his truck.
“We put our life on the line every day. Laurel police, they have a union. They got approved for theirs. But they didn’t have a hard time with theirs,” Holloway said.
In an interview, Holloway spoke about job safety, pay and benefits creating issues in his role as Laborer II for the department and serving as motivation for his drive to unionize.
“Let’s give them their union, right?” Mitchell said. “This is going to be the very last line.”