Hundreds of labor and Latino activists converged on the State House last night despite the inclement weather to demonstrate for greater workers' rights, including better enforcement of state wage laws.
Organizers had expected a turnout of 1,800 workers from all corners of the state, but snow and rain caused some groups to cancel.
Still, a diverse crowd of several hundred gathered to shout slogans in Spanish and English, criticizing Gov. Robert J. Ehrlich Jr. for a budget that would eliminate the state units that handle unpaid-wage complaints and uphold prevailing wage laws for state-funded public works projects.
Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, and Gustavo Torres, executive director of the Latino advocacy group CASA of Maryland, introduced speakers who included Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"The fight to preserve prevailing wage is every workers' fight," said Mason. "The fight to preserve the Office of Employment Standards to make sure that workers are paid when they're supposed to be paid is a fight for all of us. And the fight for social justice for ... workers that were not born in this country is one fight."
Ricardo Flores, president of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, said that a state delegate with whom some of his group's members had met was surprised at the large turnout.
"Nothing is going to stop the immigrant community, the Latino community, from making partnerships that we need to move ... forward," said Flores. The activists also voiced support for bills to increase the state's minimum wage, expand health insurance to all workers and increase funding for adult education classes.
The rally came on the eve of an expected state Senate vote on a bill that would increase the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, an increase of $1 per hour. The groups support amending the legislation to increase the minimum wage to $7.15 by October 2006.
They also decried a half-dozen bills they consider anti-immigrant, such as one that would make English the official state language and another to deny local and state benefits to people who are not U.S. citizens.
Greeting the crowd in Spanish, O'Malley criticized Ehrlich's negative comments about multiculturalism last year. "Unlike our Republican friends, we support expanding health care, not pushing people off of health care," he said. "Multiculturalism is not `bunk,' " he said, alluding to Ehrlich's comments. "Multiculturalism is America.
The rally followed the release last week of a report by the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice that documented hundreds of cases of nonpayment of wages and dangerous working conditions.
Ehrlich's fiscal 2006 budget disbands the Employment Standards Service, which investigates unpaid-wage and child-labor complaints, and the prevailing-wage law unit that is responsible for determining wage rates of state-funded public works projects.
The units had a combined budget of about $700,000 and 13 employees. Because of the lack of funding, advocates say many of the complaints were referred to the U.S. Department of Labor, which cannot enforce minimum-wage or other state laws that exceed federal standards.