O'Malley Promotes Labor's Priorities

Gov. Martin O'Malley is backing a living wage bill and a bill allowing unions to charge fees to state employees, even if they had not joined the union.
Gov. Martin O'Malley is backing a living wage bill and a bill allowing unions to charge fees to state employees, even if they had not joined the union. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

The message was hard to miss. Organized labor felt shunned for four years under Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's Republican predecessor. But at O'Malley's inaugural address last month, both the national and statewide presidents of the AFL-CIO were among the dignitaries who sat on the dais with the new Democratic governor.

Since then, O'Malley's overtures have moved well beyond the symbolic. This legislative session, he has embraced two bills, both with uncertain fates, that are high priorities for labor.

One would mandate a "living wage" of at least $11.95 an hour for employees of state contractors. A similar measure was vetoed three years ago by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). O'Malley would "sign it with enthusiasm," a high-ranking administration official testified before lawmakers last week.

A more controversial bill being pushed by O'Malley would allow unions to charge fees to state employees whose interests they represent in collective bargaining, even employees who had not joined the union. That measure showed up unexpectedly last month in O'Malley's legislative package.

O'Malley's actions have prompted some lawmakers to conclude that he is paying back organizations that poured hundreds of hours of volunteer work and hundreds of thousands of dollars into his election last year. Although the number of households represented by unions has fallen in recent years, organized labor remains a potent force in state and national politics.

"Labor unions brought him to the dance, and now he's rewarding their efforts," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has championed bills benefiting working-class families in the past but expressed reservations about the living wage and "agency fee" bills.

O'Malley aides say he is doing nothing unusual to help labor, arguing that his entire campaign focused on empowering working families.

"The governor said he would protect the interests of working people, and he intends to keep his word," spokesman Steve Kearney said.

Moreover, O'Malley aides say, neither bill that he is backing is radical. Versions of both are in place in Baltimore, where O'Malley was mayor for seven years. And, they say, there already would be a statewide living wage law had it not been vetoed by Ehrlich, who said it would have driven up the cost of state contracts.

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland and District chapter of the AFL-CIO, said his organization, which claims nearly 300,000 members, has been "pretty pleased" with O'Malley. But Mason, whose office overlooks the governor's mansion in Annapolis, chuckled when asked whether O'Malley was doing the group's bidding.

"Somehow there's this notion of payback or payoff for unions," Mason said. "The reality is we've got about 17 bills in the House and the Senate that we are saying are important to labor."

Both bills O'Malley is backing face obstacles.

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