Right-to-work makes annual appearance Republican bill faces almost certain defeat in General Assembly

March 14, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

"Right-to-work," the issue that will not die in Maryland, returned to the General Assembly yesterday for a contentious hearing that showed the 49-year-old controversy has lost none of its ability to inflame tempers.

In what is becoming an annual rite, Republican legislators and business leaders trooped before the House Economic Matters Committee to argue that Maryland should join the bloc of 21 mostly Southern and Western states that outlaw union-shop provisions in labor contracts.

Proponents call such bans "right-to-work" laws -- a term unions have never accepted without "so-called" as a prefix or "for less" as a suffix. For decades, it has been the litmus-test issue by which labor unions determine whether a legislator is a friend or a foe.

For many conservative Republicans and their business allies, right-to-work is the political equivalent of the Holy Grail -- an act that would transform Maryland from the southernmost Northern state to the northernmost Southern state.

For the most part, the arguments on both sides were the same ones legislators have been hearing since Congress gave states the right to ban union shop agreements in the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act.

Proponents talked about protecting the rights of individual workers, transforming the state's business climate and curbing the power of "union bosses." Union leaders accused right-to-work advocates of attempting to destroy unions and lower Marylanders' standard of living.

Supreme Court decisions have held that individuals cannot be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment. The real teeth of the bill can be found in its provision banning agency shop agreements, under which all members of a bargaining unit are required to pay a fee to cover the cost of bargaining.

The bill's defeat this year is almost certainly a foregone 'u conclusion, because right-to-work is an issue on which even conservative Maryland Democrats tend to vote with their party. The same committee turned down a right-to-work bill last year on a 14-7 party line vote.

"It is nothing other than a show. If one vote changes on this bill from last year. I'll be amazed," said Del. Robert Frank, a Baltimore County Democrat.

The issue was a hardy perennial for decades before the Republicans, discouraged by lack of business support, dropped such efforts in the early 1980s. For more than a dozen years, the issue went away, until the 1994 elections brought a new crop of aggressive, conservative Republicans into office.

In 1995, Del. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford Republican, revived the effort. For each of the last three sessions, she has sponsored a right-to-work bill. This year, it is one of the major goals on the House Republicans' legislative agenda, and supporters are vowing to bring it back every year until it is adopted.

"This is an attempt to give workers the right to choose and put a sign on this state that Maryland is open for business," said Jacobs.

For yesterday's hearing, right-to-work backers changed their strategy from previous years -- putting more emphasis on the rights of individual workers and less on economic development. To make their case, they recruited a union shop steward and two other workers to testify on their behalf.

"Unions are not handed down by God," said Lawrence E. Wild, who said he was a Communications Workers of America shop steward at Allied Signal Corp. in Greenbelt. "I happen to be a Roman Catholic . . . but I wouldn't insist on everyone in this room joining."

As he and other proponents testified, they were met with the stony glares of blue-collar workers in union caps and jackets who packed the hearing room -- taking virtually every chair and sprawling on the carpeted floor in the center of the committee's U-shaped table. Hundreds of others milled around in the halls outside.

"It is uncivilized," complained Robert O. C. "Rocky" Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government. He said the scene resembled a "banana republic."

Baltimore union leader Ernie Grecco said he found the sight "beautiful."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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