By Amy Joyce and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 14, 2006
Labor will take its major victory from Maryland's health care vote this week to 31 other states, hoping to capitalize on anti-Wal-Mart sentiment and to build momentum in state legislatures considering similar measures.
Washington and New Hampshire are among the states labor activists view as most likely to follow in Maryland's footsteps . Similar measures also have been introduced recently in states including Colorado, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
Organized labor has a lot riding on this campaign. Companies that provide higher pay and benefits under union contracts are battling lower-cost competitors here and abroad. The companies are attempting to level the playing field by cutting back on pay and benefits, sometimes by filing for bankruptcy. Labor is trying the opposite tack: making others pay more.
That is why as various labor organizations are splintered on many issues, they are united in their efforts to improve wages and benefits at Wal-Mart.
In Maryland, organized labor began to pull together more than 18 months ago, when the United Food and Commercial Workers joined forces with one of the state's most active health care advocacy groups, the Maryland Health Care for All Coalition, to tackle the issue of employee health care coverage.
Kim Nelson, state director of a Service Employees International Union project called Maryland for Health Care, heard about the effort and saw an opportunity. "I glommed onto the concept because it seemed like it was answering a big public policy question in the health care debate," Nelson said. The two unions, along with the health care advocates, signed up one of Maryland's most powerful lobbyists -- Barbara A. Hoffman, former chairman of the senate's budget committee -- and began piecing together the proposal.
From that point, to its final passage this week, those unions, joined later by others, played a pivotal role at several key moments.
The most visible show of force came in recent weeks, as a vote to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s (R) veto approached. To push through the bill, the Senate and House needed support from three-fifths of the members.
For Democrats controlling the House of Delegates, that meant grabbing votes from members who, despite their party affiliation, had been reliable votes for Ehrlich. One of those was Del. Joseph J. Minnick (D), a restaurant owner who represents a blue-collar district east of Baltimore that once was home to factories for Bethlehem Steel Corp., General Motors Corp., Western Electric and Lever Brothers, a soap manufacturer. Minnick, who had received $3,000 from unions during the last campaign cycle, did not vote on the bill last year, and Ehrlich was counting on his vote to help sustain the veto.
Then he started hearing not only from the SEIU and UFCW, but also from others. He got a call at home from a union official in New Jersey whose mother had worked on Minnick's campaign. E-mail arrived from building trade members who live in his district. The day before the vote, he said he arrived at his Annapolis office to find 10 U.S. Steel workers waiting in his office. Wednesday night, he said, a fellow delegate from the district received a call on his cell phone from Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.
Even though the factory jobs in his Baltimore area district have dwindled, unions still play a critical role in electoral politics, said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D), who represents the same community. "They put people on the street for you, they have phone banks, their endorsements are meaningful to a lot of people," Stone said.
Several lawmakers noted that the lobbying blitz by labor was no greater than the influence of the giant retailer. Wal-Mart hired a team of lobbyists to work the bill in recent weeks. The company said it is "looking at a variety of options" now that the bill passed. It would not elaborate on how it might respond to other state lawmakers' efforts.
Wisconsin state Sen. Dave Hansen (D) introduced similar legislation in November, but said he is "not totally optimistic" that it will have the success it did in Maryland. The Wisconsin legislature is majority Republican, and the bill is co-sponsored only by Democrats. But there will be hearings next week, he said.
Labor began to strongly unite after Ehrlich vetoed the bill last spring. The groups focused not just on Maryland, but on other states where they thought lawmakers and citizens might similar legislation. Local unions, state AFL-CIO offices, anti-Wal-Mart groups and other advocacy groups began promoting similar bills .
The groups all contributed to drafting a model Fair Share Health Care Act, according to Naomi Walker, the AFL-CIO's state legislative director. "This was really big. I think what was so notable was despite the divisions in labor, everyone was really focused on this victory," she said.
WakeUp Wal-Mart, a UFCW group, said a portion of its 170,000 supporters will lobby on behalf of the legislation. Another group, Wal-Mart Watch, which was originally funded by the SEIU, also will target states where the bill has a good chance of passing, including Washington and New Hampshire, according to Tracy Sefl, spokeswoman.
Shortly before the override in Maryland, five of the group's field workers lobbied small businesses to take up the cause in Maryland's swing districts. About 150 signed letters that were sent to their delegates, and some posted signs in their windows calling for support of the bill.
The impetus for pushing for company-sponsored health care was a crushing 2003 Southern California grocery workers strike that lasted for 20 weeks and hurt both the workers and the stores. A major issue was affordable health care. "We came out of Southern California after the strike realizing that it is so hard to get employers to provide health care," said Anna Burger, SEIU secretary-treasurer.
Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the health care initiative really started to gain attention when Wal-Mart was identified publicly as the target. The skirmish over the bill "escalated to a level greater than anyone imagined," Busch said. "I think it's obvious now why: Wal-Mart is a lightning rod."
Obviously, enough Maryland legislators agreed, including Minnick. After he "anguished over it," Minnick called the governor.
"I told him I was going the other way," Minnick said. "He was not happy, but he understood."