Loyalty pays off for Md. unions

Glendening's support of labor shown in prevailing-wage push

January 23, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Organized labor in Maryland is reaping the rewards of loyalty.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has enjoyed the support of unions for more than a quarter-century, threw his allies a plum last week by announcing in his State of the State address that he would support an effort to shore up wages for school construction projects.

"School construction should be bound by the same prevailing-wage requirements that govern other state projects," the governor declared. "The men and women who build our schools deserve to make a decent wage."

The governor's decision to make prevailing-wage legislation -- in which contractors must pay workers at the predominant rate -- a top item on his agenda is the latest in a series of pro-union stands that have endeared him to organized labor and infuriated conservative critics.

Both supporters and opponents say he is the most explicitly pro-labor Maryland governor in recent memory. And even among his fellow Democratic governors nationally, his ties with unions are especially warm.

"I think he's been a pro-labor governor, and he wears it on his sleeve," said Primo R. Padeletti, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. "It's a new era with Parris Glendening. Things we've been fighting for for decades have come to fruition under his administration."

During his first term, Glendening issued an executive order instituting collective bargaining for state employees, and last year he won passage of a bill securing those rights in law.

He gave labor a Cabinet department to call its own -- Labor, Licensing and Regulation -- and named a union leader to head it. He backed a law improving pensions for state workers, and he's used state economic development money to preserve high-paying union jobs.

Glendening's pro-labor stance on issues has been matched by symbolic gestures. At his second inauguration last year, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, were honored guests.

Not surprisingly, union leaders are delighted with their powerful pal.

Envy of other states

Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said his counterparts from other states envy his close relationship with the governor. "They usually look at me and say, `Boy, do I wish we had the governor that you've got,' " said Pence.

The governor's support for the prevailing-wage law comes as no surprise to observers of Glendening's career. He has had a long, mutually beneficial relationship with labor that dates to his first race for the Prince George's County Council in 1974. Unions helped make him county executive and were by his side when he ran for governor.

That support has never wavered, even at the darkest point of his first term when he was labeled the most unpopular governor in the country.

When Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey appeared to have momentum on her side in the 1998 gubernatorial race, labor's money and muscle helped secure his surprisingly comfortable re-election.

Now at the peak of his power and popularity, the governor is free to reward his friends. And for construction unions, there are few stronger desires than prevailing-wage legislation, which promotes higher wages in the building trades.

Glendening's push to expand the prevailing wage is likely to be one of the most hard-fought issues of the 2000 legislative session -- one that is drawing hints of a filibuster from Senate Republicans. Critics charge that the governor is putting the desires of organized labor ahead of the interests of education.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman said paying the prevailing wage would inflate the costs of school construction. The Howard County Republican said the governor's proposal shows that "he cares more about labor than he cares about kids."

Kittleman, a state delegate since 1983, said he cannot recall another Maryland governor who has been so closely allied with unions.

"He'll do whatever they ask, and he won't buck them, no matter how they hurt the citizens of this state," he said.

`A fairness bill'

Glendening makes no apologies for what he calls "a fairness bill."

"I don't think our tax dollars should be used to bring the wage scale down," the governor said in an interview last week.

Prevailing-wage laws have long been a target of organized labor's critics, who contend that they should be repealed rather than expanded. Under Maryland's law, contractors bidding on government projects are required to pay their workers at least the prevailing wage in the market, the most commonly paid wage as determined by the state Labor Department.

In some jurisdictions, such as Allegany County, that rate can be the equivalent of union scale. But in most Maryland counties, it is less. According to the Labor Department, 21 percent of the prevailing wages it sets are as high as union wages.

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