OCEAN CITY – Municipal employees returned to City Hall this week to inform the Mayor and Council they were actively gathering petition signatures to amend the city charter to allow them the right to collective bargaining.
Word spread in the beginning of the year that Ocean City general employees were weighing their options to unionize. At that time, it was reported that a document expressing the intent of general city employees to potentially create a union was circulating throughout the town, and approximately 80 percent of employees reportedly signed it.
In February, a large group of employees, referred to as General Employees For Organization, surfaced at City Hall to express their grievances to the Mayor and City Council.
James Moxley, who works in the maintenance division, said the general employees were requesting the council amend the town charter to recognize municipal employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.
Currently, Ocean City police officers have collective bargaining rights with binding interest arbitration as recourse, while town paramedics and fire personnel have collective bargaining. The cops had to get their rights through a referendum process, while the paramedics scored their rights through a simple council vote later.
The general employees have not received a vote from the City Council as of yet and have turned to collecting signatures in order for a charter amendment to be placed on the ballot in October. They were seen at Tuesday’s primary’s collecting signatures.
At this week’s meeting, Gregory DeMarco, a Recreation and Parks employees, approached the council.
“I would like to address the state of morale among Ocean City general employees and why it has deteriorated so badly since last January … The actions of the majority on this council in this past year, attempting to pander to the worst element of the electorate by trashing city employees are unworthy of leadership,” DeMarco said.
DeMarco recalled the time following the 2010 elections when the new majority of the council moved to decrease pay and benefits for new city employees.
“I believe the comments made by Councilman Joe Hall at the time helped start the decline of morale when he said, ‘When city employees retire regardless of how long they served, even if it was a lifetime, when you’re done, we are done with you’,” he said.
Demarco said it was at this point in time when the current general employees began to feel vulnerable.
“Finally after thoughtful consideration the mayor took the courageous action of vetoing the overwhelming majority of changes passed by the four, and he did it in a packed chamber receiving a standing ovation,” he said.
DeMarco pointed out that during the chaos the police, fire, and EMT personnel had nothing to fret because they already received the right to collective bargaining.
“This is not about raises, this is about equality,” he said. “The general employees want the same right that our fellow co-workers have in the police and fire departments. We want protection from the council that goes out of its way to threaten and intimidate us, and the council that will show us time and time again that they care less about our concerns and our well beings.”
Demarco suggested the council vote to amend the charter to allow general employees the right to organize rather than requiring the petition effort. That request did not result in any comments from the council.
“This gesture of kindness and reconciliation will go a long way in healing the wounds in the past year and it will not be forgotten,” he said.
Frank Adkins, Ocean City resident and advocate for city employees, pointed out that 80 percent of what the taxpayers pay for employee salaries goes towards upper management or the police, fire, and EMT’s. It is the employees at the bottom of the pay scale that need a raise.
“The city employees are going to get that petition started and they are going to get the signatures, and the voters are going to have the chance to vote on it,” he said.
Adkins added that it is the city employees that are the infrastructure of Ocean City’s tourism.
“You got to have the people that give them the service and that are the city employees,” he said. “Whether it is water and sewer, or the garbage man that cleans up the streets every day because this is a clean town … and that is done by the city employees.”
Citizens For Ocean City organizer Joe Groves said that it is the comments made by the council that worry the general employees.
“Your employees, whether it is reality or perception, are scared,” he said. “I don’t know if they deserve a contract or not, but I know one thing, they deserve better than what they have gotten in the last four years. It is tough for everybody.”
By this point, Councilman Brent Ashley had reached a breaking point in the amount of criticism the council was receiving.
“Some of this has gone far enough for me,” he said. “I sit here and take the criticism … nobody has given more to this town to make it better his entire life than Joe Hall has … and for you people to come here and continually criticize Joe, I think you got a lot of nerve … enough is enough of this crap.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas reminded the room that when changes were being proposed to decrease employee pay and benefits, current employees were never in the equation.
“Everyone that worked here continued to get their benefits, their salaries, and when we can raise we will raise, so no one is in jeopardy,” she said. “As far as retaliation, you will never be retaliated on by this council, we love you. We respect you.”
Pillas added that the changes were in attempt to “tighten the belt” in order to conserve and sustain the town.
Ashley reiterated that there is not one member on the council that does not care for the employees of Ocean City and that the present employees were never on the list.
“We believed nothing has happened because of the citizens coming in force and voicing their outrage, we believe that is what stopped it,” DeMarco said. “Perhaps I’m wrong but I can tell you what, we haven’t felt that way for the last 15 months. Many employees don’t trust the majority.”