With state lawmakers preparing to make decisions in the coming weeks on budget cuts and pension reform, thousands of union members marched Monday evening on Annapolis to send a message.
The marchers were met by a counterprotest, organized by tea party activists, of several dozen taxpayers asking for deeper state budget cuts.
The union group was large enough to cut off traffic in downtown Annapolis. Chanting "keep the promise" and "enough is enough," they decried efforts by Gov. Martin O'Malley and legislators to change employee contributions to their retirement plans, a move that officials say would save the state an estimated $100 million next year.
The many teachers in the audience also spoke out against the governor's plans to continue funding K-12 schools at current levels. If the proposal is adopted by state lawmakers, Baltimore would receive $15 million less and Prince George's County $16 million less than they were slated to receive next year under the state's education funding formula.
One by one, state workers took the stage to tell their stories to an audience that organizers said reached about 15,000. Each focused on a different complaint.
Jeanette Taylor, a parole and probation worker, said she had "answered the call" and taken a pay cut a few years ago to become a state employee. In her mid-50s, she said some of the pension plans under consideration would force her to work until age 78.
She rallied the crowd: "Leave the pensions alone."
Retired prison maintenance employee Ernie Prince talked about health problems he and his wife have endured, including diabetes, two brain surgeries and breast cancer. He said he now pays $124 each month for prescription drugs, and under reforms being considered by the state, he would pay $409 per month — leaving little money, he said, for food and other expenses.
"I just don't have it," he said. "I kept my promise to the state of Maryland. Brothers and sisters — enough is enough!"
O'Malley, a Democrat who drew broad union support in his election campaigns, made an unexpected appearance at the conclusion of the rally. He told workers that he, too, is unhappy with the budget.
Last month, O'Malley and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest group of state workers, reached a deal on a three-year contract that allows for raises if state revenues increase. The deal also contains a $750 bonus this year, and for the first time in three years guarantees that workers will not be furloughed.
Union leaders acknowledged Monday that Maryland doesn't face the collective-bargaining struggles they're seeing in other states. Still, the rally was meant to "send a message that we're all standing together," Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in an interview.
He said union members want to tell elected officials that budget woes "shouldn't fall only on the backs of workers."
While the union members rallied, the tea party activists floated pink balloons and wore pig snouts as a way to call out budget fat.
Many hoisted signs supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who signed legislation last week to take collective-bargaining rights from employees in that state.