With a "living wage" law likely to win approval before the General Assembly adjourns Monday, Maryland is poised for the second time in two years to lead the nation on laws designed to help low-wage workers.
In a sign of labor's powerful place in Maryland politics, the legislature became the first in the nation last year to enact a law -- later overturned by the courts -- forcing Wal-Mart to pay more for worker health care. Maryland lawmakers also raised the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour last year, a step several states had already taken.
This year, Gov. Martin O'Malley appears to have persuaded legislative leaders to make Maryland the first state to require government contractors to pay their workers even higher wages -- in some areas $11.30 an hour, or nearly double the minimum wage.
Dozens of states considered legislation like the Wal-Mart bill after Maryland enacted its law, but amid concerns about legality, none passed. Now, proponents say Maryland could be the tipping point in pushing living wage laws, previously confined to cities and counties, to the state level.
Such measures are anathema to business interests, which say they amount to an unwarranted intrusion on free enterprise, would do little to improve the lives of working families and, in some cases, could hurt those they are intended to help.
While those arguments have derailed similar efforts in other states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, they have held almost no sway in Maryland, where the union hall still appears to pack more influence than the boardroom.
"There does seem to be some disconnect between legislators and what they think makes a strong community versus what business people think makes a strong and successful business environment," said Donald C. Fry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a former legislator. "It's not a new phenomenon."
The lack of political punch in Maryland's business community was a constant annoyance to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who famously harangued business leaders for failing to "get dangerous" in their dealings with the Democrat-dominated General Assembly.
The legislature passed a similar living-wage bill during Ehrlich's term, only to see him veto the measure. In response, Democratic leaders in the Assembly enacted a higher minimum wage, then voted to override an Ehrlich veto.
Although Maryland wasn't the first to enact a minimum wage higher than the federal level, the state was lampooned by the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and by Rush Limbaugh for those votes and the Wal-Mart bill. Ehrlich attempted to use the issues in last year's election to paint Democrats as out of touch.
But O'Malley -- who had the strong financial and logistical backing of labor unions and made "working families" the catch-phrase of his campaign -- prevailed over Ehrlich.
The new governor wasted no time in showing his allegiance to organized labor. He invited AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to his inaugural, and a few days later, he deviated from the script in his State of the State speech to promise to push for a living-wage law.
"We are going to be asking that we consider a living wage so the people who work hard are able to bring home a decent living for their families when they play by the rules," O'Malley said in the speech.
The issue lay dormant for the next few weeks as lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, expressed unease over the proposal. Sean Dobson, acting executive director of Progressive Maryland, which represents a coalition of liberal groups, including labor unions, said his organization and others coordinated a behind-the-scenes lobbying push, bombarding lawmakers with postcards, e-mail and phone calls.
He said Maryland voters are becoming more eager to work on the state level on issues such as the living wage because they see nothing to help working families coming from the Bush administration, which has grown increasingly unpopular in the state.
"Ten years ago, I don't think this bill would have passed," Dobson said. "Now, we have a diverse network of progressive groups that can push for this, and now we have Governor O'Malley."
The logjam broke Wednesday after O'Malley and aides brokered a compromise.
The administration's agreement to establish a two-tier wage system -- contractors in the Baltimore-Washington area would be paid $11.30 an hour and workers in rural areas of the state would be paid $8.50 -- secured the cooperation of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
The House Economic Matters Committee met yesterday morning and, under pressure from the O'Malley administration, voted narrowly to send the bill to the floor. The full House began debate yesterday and could vote to send the measure to the Senate today.
Miller said the governor had a receptive audience because the living wage is an established idea in Maryland. Baltimore was the first local jurisdiction in the nation to establish a living-wage law, and similar measures are now in effect in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
"In Maryland, half the population is governed by living-wage provisions currently, and with the amendment, which recognizes the diversity of the state and the need for jobs in the rural areas of the state and different costs of living, the bill, in my opinion, is now acceptable," Miller said.
Peter L. Francia, a political science professor at East Carolina University and author of The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics, said Maryland lawmakers' receptiveness to the living-wage law shows that although unions aren't as large an economic force as they were, they are still a major power in American politics.
Maryland isn't among the most unionized states, but its relatively high proportion of government and nonprofit workers makes it unusually attentive to the priorities of organized labor, Francia said.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, 18 percent of Maryland's work force holds a government job, among the highest in the nation.
"The stereotypical image of the union member in the hard hat doesn't fit anymore," Francia said. "The labor movement is increasingly defined by workers in the public sector. That plays a big role in the type of policies the movement is going to address and the people that are sympathetic to the concerns of organized labor."
A recent poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that more than 70 percent of Maryland voters favor a living wage law. That's up from 63 percent in December 2003.
"We know from polls that the overwhelming majority of Marylanders don't want to see people in poverty," said Del. Herman L. Taylor II, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the living wage bill again this year.
But Bob Burdon, president of the Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said all that the state will accomplish is to hurt business and reduce jobs. "The state is becoming engaged in setting the market rate for labor when they try to do something of this nature," he said.
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