Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Labor and the Governor

At first, I believed that Maryland’s labor movement would be annoyed at the anti-union propaganda on the state’s business development website but would ultimately see it as a blip in an otherwise positive relationship with Governor O’Malley. But after talking to many labor leaders around the state, I am not so sure about that.

MPW readers should know that our original post on this subject that followed Free State Politics’ breaking of the story received more visits than any individual post on our blog for many months. In fact, direct visits to this post alone without going through the site URL accounted for nearly one-quarter of all visits to MPW for two straight days. And yesterday we received more visits than on any other single day in two months. This is all extremely unusual considering that our first post on the issue appeared on a Saturday in July, hardly a prime viewing time for political blogs. We hear that our original post and a follow-up dating some of the rhetoric all the way back to the Glendening administration zoomed across the state’s labor movement and crystallized some of labor’s existing feelings about the current Governor. By Monday morning, the anti-union language on the state’s website had been taken down but the damage remains.

Martin O’Malley was elected with overwhelming support from Maryland’s labor movement. He got off to a good start on labor issues, helping pass a state living wage law in his first year and supporting a bill that allowed public employee unions to charge fees to non-members for representational services. His appointments of former Montgomery County Council Member Tom Perez as the Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and former Baltimore building trades leader Ron DeJulius as Commissioner of Labor and Industry were widely praised by labor. And the Governor announced that he was restoring and beefing up the labor inspections office after his predecessor virtually killed it.

But since then the relationship has cooled. During the special session, labor assisted the Governor in passing his tax package and the slots referendum even though many did not like its regressive elements. Despite its aid to the Governor in his time of need, labor did not achieve many of its priorities in the general session that followed. One angry labor leader told me, “Seven labor bills were introduced before the legislature last year and not one made it out of committee. The administration was essentially AWOL on all of them.” Another labor leader gave O’Malley a grade of “C,” saying, “I understand that politicians make lots of promises and then do a little less, but…” A third labor person described a state of “discontent” with the Governor. “He’s been good to blue-collar families in a general sense, but he hasn’t done a whole lot to help the labor movement grow.” Still another labor veteran challenged the perception that the Governor was responsible for the living wage law, claiming that since the legislature already passed it once but was stymied by former Governor Ehrlich’s veto, all that was necessary was to have a Governor who would not veto the bill again. “What can you point to with O’Malley? On living wage, when he was handed the football on the one-yard line, he got it in… He hasn’t picked up any labor bills as one of his top 3 or 4 priorities in any year. There’s been no initiative, and that’s the sad thing.” This leader also gave the Governor a grade of “C.”

The Governor does have his defenders. One longtime labor pro credited him for the living wage bill since “it would not have passed without him.” This leader also praised the Governor for advocating combined reporting (which would make it harder for corporations to hide their income in other states) and making the income tax system more progressive. “I have nothing but admiration for him for that.”

Among the bills that died in 2008 were ones requiring employers to provide shift breaks, requiring construction contractors on state jobs to participate in state-registered apprenticeship programs, requiring construction contractors on state jobs to provide health insurance, requiring construction projects over $500,000 to have lavatories, prohibiting state agencies from purchasing apparel from sweatshops, requiring any casinos permitted by the slots referendum to negotiate project labor agreements for their construction jobs, establishing a Public School Labor Relations Board, and increasing the maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit.

Perhaps most troubling of all was the death of a bill designed to crack down on misclassification of workers as independent contractors. As I explained last November, employers in many industries, but especially construction, often illegally misclassify employees as contractors to escape responsibility for paying FICA taxes, unemployment insurance premiums, workers compensation premiums and income tax withholding. Several states have found revenue losses from these practices totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, though no one has studied the issue in Maryland. In a year that the administration supported cuts of $25 million to the newly-established Chesapeake Bay cleanup fund and $50 million to transportation to pay for repeal of the computer tax, the Governor might have been expected to embrace a labor-backed bill that would have raised millions of dollars more for the budget. But the bill died in a House committee and the Board of Public Works voted in favor of more spending cuts last month.

The Governor currently has troubled relationships with some in the immigrant community over the drivers license issue, many in the GLBT community over marriage equality and now some in labor. These are three very important parts of the state’s progressive base. At a time when the Governor’s approval ratings are still low, he needs these groups more than ever.

“What’s the alternative?” asked one labor leader, dismissing out-of-hand any consideration of the still-detested former Governor Robert Ehrlich. That may be a valid point, but here is the problem for Governor O’Malley: how many people in his base are now asking that question?

Update: Kathleen Miller of the Examiner picked up the story and obtained confirmation from the state that the anti-union site went back to the Glendening administration. Further, they admitted “staff researchers had occasionally updated data on the page during O’Malley’s tenure.” Ms. Miller recognized the role played by both Free State Politics and MPW in fixing the problem, a rare acknowledgement by the mainstream media of the blogging community. Thank you Ms. Miller!