In heavily Democratic Maryland, where organized labor can still pack a punch, unions have lobbied in recent years to protect public employees, expand collective-bargaining rights and improve worker safety.
A less-traditional issue will top their agenda when the General Assembly reconvenes next week: legalizing same-sex marriage.
In advance of the 90-day session, labor leaders are promoting the new priority in coming days with a news conference and participation in an Internet video campaign organized by a group pushing to make Maryland the seventh state (in addition to the District) to allow gay nuptials.
“At 1199 SEIU, we support working families, not just certain families,” Ezekiel Jackson, an organizer for health-care workers in Maryland and the District, says in the video, in which he dons a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap. “That’s why bringing marriage equality to Maryland is important. It’s about making all families, including committed gay and lesbian couples, and their kids, stronger.”
A bill to legalize same-sex marriage fell short last year, and both sides are mobilizing for a rematch that will probably be decided by a handful of wavering members of the House of Delegates.
Late last year, a diverse coalition of religious leaders launched a renewed campaign against “redefining” marriage with a pair of news conferences at churches in Prince George’s County and Baltimore, jurisdictions that several of the targeted lawmakers represent.
Bill supporters, among them Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), are hopeful that some additional muscle will be added to their side by organized labor, which despite declining membership has a still-strong tradition in Maryland of helping its friends at election time.
SEIU affiliates alone steered more than $575,000 to Maryland legislative candidates during the 2010 election cycle, according to campaign finance records.
Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, said labor’s stance on marriage rights builds on its long-standing support of measures to protect gay people in the workplace. And it is an acknowledgment that some of its members are gay, he said.
“When push comes to shove, union members, regardless of their personal views, stand on the side of social justice,” said Mason, who has a son who is gay. “This is certainly a major issue for Maryland, and organized labor will not stand on the sidelines.”
The AFL-CIO serves as an umbrella organization for several dozen international unions with chapters in Maryland — some of them newer than others to the fight over same-sex marriage.
Nationally, SEIU has been on record supporting marriage rights for gay couples since 2004. The service-workers union was heavily involved in last year’s successful effort for same-sex marriage legislation in New York.
In Maryland, labor leaders are hoping to build upon that momentum with a broader coalition. At a convention in November, the AFL-CIO affiliates unanimously passed a resolution supporting passage of legislation that O’Malley has pledged to sponsor this year.
In coming weeks, labor leaders say they plan to mobilize many of the 300,000 workers they represent to lobby lawmakers in Annapolis and in their districts back home. Same-sex marriage will be a major theme of a Jan. 16 rally outside the State House, Mason said.
And the AFL-CIO will weigh the votes of lawmakers alongside other labor priorities as it decides which candidates to endorse in the future, he said.
“We’re prepared to put the resources of our organization behind this effort,” Mason said. “All the affiliates are expected to use their political leverage to get it done.”
Whether that is enough to alter the outcome remains to be seen.
Last year, a same-sex marriage bill cleared the Senate but ran into resistance in the House among black lawmakers from Prince George’s, who cited church opposition. The legislation also proved a tough sell among some conservative Democrats in Southern Maryland and the Baltimore suburbs.
Only one Republican in either chamber went on record supporting the legislation.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s), who opposed last year’s bill, said labor’s involvement this year could matter “with some, but not with everybody.”
“A lot of members have great respect for labor unions, and people are going to look at this,” Bohanan said.
Bohanan said little about his own thinking on the legislation, allowing only that he was already planning “to take a fresh look at a lot of issues in 2012.”
The influence of labor unions varies among legislative districts, but many Democratic candidates welcome their donations and the ground troops that can accompany an endorsement at election time. Labor backing can prove pivotal in a Democratic primary.
In 2010, aggressive help from the SEIU and other unions played a significant role in helping three delegates — Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s), Karen S. Montgomery (D-Montgomery) and Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) — defeat incumbent senators from their own party.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur, an openly gay delegate, said she is hopeful that the influence of labor can help push a few of her colleagues to her side of the same-sex marriage issue.
“There’s a handful of fence-sitters who have wanted to vote for marriage but fear the political ramifications,” said Mizeur (D-Montgomery). “This gives them something else to weigh.”
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