Mum’s the Word
Bill would shield labor-union communications from disclosure in Maryland
Published: March 14, 2012
If you’re in a union, there’s no guarantee that information you share with union officials won’t end up in others’ hands. In practice, that rarely happens—it’s a relationship of trust and advocacy—but circumstances may arise in which union officials may be compelled to share what they’ve learned from you in legal proceedings. That’s because, unlike attorney/client or doctor/patient privileges that keep secret what’s been shared between a licensed professional and his or her client, union officials aren’t shielded from being forced to disclose information about union matters they’ve learned from their members.
That would change in Maryland, though, if a measure currently before the General Assembly passes and is signed into law. Its official title is “Courts and Judicial Proceedings—Witnesses—Privileged Communications Between Labor Organization and Member,” and its sponsors—senators Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County) and Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Joseph Vallario (D-Prince George’s County)—chair the legislative committees in which the measure is being considered. Its passage would make Maryland the only state other than Illinois where union officials have a right to keep silent in a legal proceeding when they’re asked to share union information they’ve learned from members.
The bill includes exceptions, such as when “necessary to prevent the commission of a crime that is likely to result in a clear, imminent risk of serious physical injury to or death of another individual,” the bill’s text states, and “when required by a court order.” Also, the bill says that if the measure conflicts with “any federal or state labor law, the provisions of the federal or state law shall control.”
Both versions of the bill—Senate Bill 797 and House Bill 1042—had hearings in late February, and await approval by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee before moving on for full legislative consideration. The video of the House committee hearing held on Feb. 28 features supportive testimony from representatives of numerous unions, the nonprofit advocacy group Progressive Maryland, and the Maryland NAACP; only one opponent speaks—William Katcef, an Anne Arundel County prosecutor who spoke on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association. The bill’s sponsors either could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
“A union representative almost acts like an attorney sometimes,” John Singleton, an attorney whose clients include unions and their members, told City Paper in a phone interview. “You can’t do your job as a union agent unless someone has told you the whole truth” about a workplace grievance, Singleton explained. The agent may end up being forced to share that information during a legal proceeding, when asked, “What did you learn because you were representing this person?” If the bill becomes law, though, the agent could only share the information with the member’s consent—a privilege that would “relieve the stress of being put in that position.”
“The idea is to protect the confidentiality of conversations,” says Sue Esty, deputy director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. She gives as an example a situation “when a worker tells a union rep about a workplace issue, and it’s the same matter as the worker is being charged for criminally. The union rep needs to be able to do his or her job without being called as a witness in a criminal case at some future point. They pretty much aren’t able to do that right now, so it’s simply a common-sense issue.”
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, according to its web site “This bill is overreaching,” the web site reads, “and would improperly interfere with federal law, which regulates the rights and responsibilities of employee representatives, employees, and employers in labor relations.”
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing, Katcef told legislators that “I don’t believe that what’s contemplated [in the bill] is a logical extension of the current law” dictating who can assert “privileged communications,” such as lawyers, doctors, ministers, and spouses. “You’ve got to be very careful,” he said, because “who knows who’s going to be here next year,” asking the legislature for the same privilege.
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