Representatives of the most influential business organizations in Maryland gathered around a table in the ornate reception room outside Gov. Harry Hughes' office two weeks ago for a briefing on the proposed Department of Labor, Employment and Training.
Just a few moments after Hughes' staffers had handed out thick packets of information and launched into explanations of the need for the new department, an obviously upset Chamber of Commerce official spoke up.
"Why did you have to put 'Labor' in the new department's title?" the official asked, as one staffer recalled it. "Things are tough enough already."
The complaint over that one word was a symbol of what many say is the highest level of business-labor tension in the General Assembly in years.
Sparked by levels of economic hardship that have left 190,000 people out of work and forced cutbacks in businesses from coal producers in Western Maryland to small hardware stores in St. Mary's County, the two sides have come to Annapolis this year with each side insisting that they need help more than the other one does.
"You've always had conflicts between labor and business, but this year the gun is really to everyone's head," said Del. Thomas B. Kernan (D-Baltimore), a member of the committee that hears economic legislation. "Times are really tough, and it shows."
According to Hughes' secretary of economic development, 1982 was the worst year for business in Maryland since the end of World War II.
The effects are evident in every committee in the legislature that deals with labor and business issues where, on many days, Tom Bradley, the blustery leader of the politically potent state AFL-CIO, and Christopher Costello, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, appear to recount their tales of woe.
And this year there are more major issues on which to take sides.
Legislators, newly sensitized by last year's election campaigns, have filed dozens of bills offering various forms of relief to the unemployed, including a so-called Unemployed Bill of Rights that would give those out of work more time to pay bills.
With the state's unemployment insurance trust fund teetering on bankruptcy a variety of measures, some involving drastically higher taxes for employers, have come up for hearing.
Hughes, who also faced the voters last year, made two major labor issues part of his 1983 legislative package: the labor department and a measure forcing contractors on state projects to pay prevailing, and frequently higher, wages.
Dozens of other issues, from banking deregulation to the imminent demise of the occupation disease medical board of the Workmen's Compensation Commission, also are slated for debate this year.
To get the business viewpoint across, the chamber has drawn up detailed pamphlets outlining "truth" and "misinformation," according to business spokesmen, for distribution to legislators, reporters and supporters. The chamber has urged its members to contact legislators on relevant committees and has encouraged members to have lunch or dinner with legislators to press the business point of view. Other business lobbyists are doing much the same.
Unions also have position papers, and labor lobbyists gather at the doors of the Senate and the House to distribute them. Before important committee hearings and votes, labor's position papers are slipped onto the desks of committee members.
The result, even before the major issues have come up for vote and debate, has been a continued high level of rhetoric. The tone may have been set last December at a meeting of a task force called by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin to establish better communications on jobs issues. There, Bradley and the head of a major trucking business nearly got into a shouting match over state funding for job training.
"There are going to be people out in the streets raising hell in a way you don't like to see," said Bradley in a rising voice when the suggestion was made that there might be little funding for jobs programs. "We ought to change the name of this task force to the 'business subsidy task force, ' because it looks like that is the only thing that is going to get considered here."
The obviously miffed head of the Preston Trucking Co. replied: "I'm going to respond to that with as cool a head as I can muster."
"They're biting at each other all the time," sighed Sen. Joseph Bonvegna (D-Baltimore), a member of the Senate Economic Affairs Committee, where much of the unemployment legislation is being heard.
According to business leaders, the level of tension in the General Assembly has been exacerbated by labor's successes in last year's elections.
The AFL-CIO, in an ambitious get-out-the-vote effort, helped topple the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the Republican minority leader and several other anti-labor legislators. The result has been a more pro-labor legislature than anyone can remember.
The successes have made businessmen and their lobbyists wary. Their cautiousness grew to outright concern last December when the unions helped Sen. Melvin A. Steinberg, a Baltimore County lawyer with strong labor ties, wrest the senate presidency from Sen. James Clark, a conservative Howard County farmer.
"I think that really festered the conflict," said Sen. James C. Simpson (D-Charles/St. Mary's), one of labor's regular antagonists in the Senate. "And labor hasn't helped things any with their cockiness since then. They walk around here like they own the place."
But legislators on both sides of the labor-business conflict are confident that a compromise will be reached. Said Simpson: "They're going to have to compromise on some of these issues or the Senate will be in one filibuster after another. The problem is, how can you compromise without hurting people more than they can deal with."