Labor's Shrinking Power: A Maryland Case Study

BARRY RASCOVAR

September 05, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

As Labor Day approaches, the state of organized labor remains in decline. Ever since the high point in 1955, when one-third of the American work force held union cards, labor organizations have been shrinking. The unionized figure now stands at about 16 percent of U.S. non-agricultural workers.

But don't blame it all on the unions. Blame much of it on societal changes. Look at what has happened, for instance, in Annapolis during the past quarter-century.

Back in 1968, labor was king in the State House. Union leaders would hand out a sheet to their loyal delegates and senators on which way to vote on that week's bills. These orders were followed. When a labor lobbyist testified before a committee, his disapproval could often kill a measure.

In contrast, business interests had no unified voice in the hallways of Annapolis. The state Chamber of Commerce that had just been formed was actually an adjunct of the Baltimore C. of C. It didn't even have its own office in the state capital. Business representatives had little impact on legislation.

But now the reverse is true: The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is booming with influence and prestige; labor unions no longer exert much power in Annapolis. Few lawmakers toe the union line on bills, but hordes of them heed the advice on bills from the chamber's savvy band of lobbyists. The chamber is respected; the unions are tolerated.

What has happened? Labor's traditional source of clout in the legislature -- industrial, blue-collar neighborhoods in the Baltimore area -- have lost population, and thus hold far fewer seats in the General Assembly. Big unionized work forces have shrunk dramatically -- Bethlehem Steel employed more than 20,000 workers a quarter-century ago; now that number is down to 8,000. Population has shifted to the suburbs from the traditionally unionized city. The suburbs dominate the legislature and their representatives tend to be better educated, more business-wise and more independent.

Business has done a good job of educating the public. Twenty-five years ago, no one used the term "economic development." It never occurred to anyone that imposing

onerous requirements on companies or hiking unemployment insurance and workers' compensation expenses could actually harm workers by forcing businesses to cut back on staffing or leave the state entirely.

It wasn't until the end of the 1970s that economic development became a hot subject for political discussion. Ever since then, there has been a growing recognition that developing a good business climate is often more important for workers than anything else the state can do.

And certainly the general public is more aware of business and finance matters these days.

Look at the amount of space devoted to business news in The Sun. Look at the growing popularity of business newspapers and specialty finance magazines.

And look at the way public officials react when a business opportunity is threatened or an existing business is endangered: They rush to the rescue.

It has become good politics to preach economic development and to adopt the mantra, "what's good for business is good for my re-election." Expanding business opportunities in the suburbs have meant prosperity: lots of new, high-paying jobs; lots of disposable income; lots of new home-building and a higher standard of living. For proof, look to Montgomery County and Howard County.

In the State House, the Chamber of Commerce has learned the art of coalition-building. No longer is business focused on a couple of issues like workers' comp and unemployment insurance.

The chamber is taking positions on environmental bills, consumer bills, even good-government bills. And not always in opposition.

Today, the chamber's lobbyists usually seek a middle ground. Last session, for instance, the chamber played an important role in shaping portions of the landmark health-care reform bill and then getting the votes necessary for passage. It even has formed a coalition with labor on health-care matters.

That bridge-building approach seems to be working well for business. The state chamber has grown from 241 member groups in 1971 to more than 1,500, and from a budget of $48,000 to $1.7 million. Its influence is clearly on the rise.

As for labor, it won't be a happy celebration tomorrow for local advocates of unionism. For them, the situation in the State House, and in Maryland, isn't very cheery.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics and government appears here each week.

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