Maryland's long-fragmented organized labor unions buried their traditional regional and class schisms to unite behind an ambitious agenda of issues that have been around for years. They wanted unemployment benefits increased. They wanted to abolish the way occupational disease claims were settled. They wanted state police and firefighters to be able to bargain collectively.

In the end, labor got much--but not all--of what it wanted, thanks to the assembly's heightened concern for special interests in an election year. Labor was able to capitalize on that election-year responsiveness, using a successful Solidarity Day rally on the Statehouse lawn to warn vacillating legislators that in the era of Reaganomics, labor could well be galvanized into an effective political force state-wide.

The General Assembly responded, first by abolishing the controversial Occupational Disease Board, a three-doctor panel derided by union leaders as too tied to industry to objectively arbitrate occupational disease claims.

Then the assembly decided to increase weekly unemployment benefits from $140 to $153, and to guarantee that jobless workers can receive those benefits for an extra 13 weeks starting in September and continuing through June.

In an unexpected last-minute rush to curry favor with labor, 83 members of the House of Delegates voted in the closing hours to pry the labor-backed collective bargaining bill out of an unsympathetic House committee.

The bill died when the clock ran out at midnight, but the scene of 83 House members directly challenging the leadership and the committee system underscored how in an election year, special interests--especially those considered politically potent--often prevail. Said Del. V. Lanny Harchenhorn (R-Carroll), "I guess with six hours and six minutes left in the session, they figured labor can do more to help them than the leadership can do to hurt them."

But although legislators were anxious to help out labor this year, it was never at the expense of business. The labor bills considered most adamantly anti-business were defeated, including a measure to require employers to pay more to bolster the unemployment insurance fund and another bill restricting plant closings and relocations.