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.
Unions argue that the agency fee bill is a matter of fairness. Between one-third and one-half of state employees who benefit from union bargaining efforts are dues-paying union members. And yet, "that contract is bargained on behalf of everyone," said Sally Davies, president of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
According to AFSCME, unions are allowed to impose fees on nonmembers in 23 of the 27 states that allow collective bargaining. But several key lawmakers said they see no urgency to change Maryland's law.
"I expect to be lobbied very hard by the governor's entourage of very effective lobbyists, but it's a tall mountain they're going to have to climb," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) was more blunt. "Forcing people to fund a service that they don't desire to have is patently undemocratic," he said.
Although the living wage bill cleared the House and Senate by wide margins in 2004, passage this session is not guaranteed. After Ehrlich's veto, the General Assembly decided instead to raise the state's minimum wage by $1, a measure that applied to a far broader group of workers.
In addition, local living wage laws exist in Baltimore and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At a hearing last week, supporters said that a statewide measure would help lift thousands of families out of poverty.
But Miller said he now questions the wisdom of the statewide bill. Although such measures make sense in jurisdictions with a high cost of living, "in a rural areas, where jobs are scarce, it doesn't work so well," he said.
O'Malley's relationship with labor got off to a far rockier start at the beginning of his tenure as Baltimore's mayor. Battling deficits, O'Malley offered what some considered meager pay raises and privatized some city jobs. That prompted the AFL-CIO to withhold an endorsement of his reelection bid in 2003.
As Baltimore's financial outlook improved, so did O'Malley's relationship with city unions. Last year, as O'Malley ran for governor, the statewide AFL-CIO delivered an early endorsement, voting in February to back him over his primary opponent, then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
And the help hardly stopped there. In the closing months of the general election campaign, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a health-care workers union, for example, aired pro-O'Malley television and radio ads as part of what it said was a $1 million independent expenditure effort.
AFSCME, meanwhile, was among the largest contributors to the Maryland Fund, giving $600,000 to the independent anti-Ehrlich group that aired radio and television ads seeking to link Ehrlich to President Bush.
AFSCME leaders also pledged to reach out to each of its 30,000 Maryland members by phone and through home visits, urging them in the days before the election to back O'Malley and other endorsed candidates.
The assistance did not stop after Election Day.
At least three unions chipped in $25,000 apiece to help underwrite an inaugural gala in Baltimore the night O'Malley was sworn in. On the program, they were dubbed "platinum" sponsors.