Laboring for union support

As Democrats battle in governor's race, workers groups are likely to be divided


The battle for union endorsements between the Democratic rivals for Maryland governor is under way, and the competition is likely to split statewide labor groups along a Baltimore-Washington regional divide, several union leaders say.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a declared candidate for governor, is set to announce tomorrow that the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 will support his candidacy. The decision by the Baltimore-based group representing health care workers supercedes the endorsement process of its statewide union and of service union locals in the Washington suburbs.

But the other large SEIU locals, in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and in Washington, are expected to side with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, several labor leaders said.

If such a division occurs within the service organization and other state unions, then neither Duncan nor O'Malley might be able to declare definitive statewide labor support or to tap into a union's full arsenal of campaign resources, political observers say.

"Martin O'Malley is our candidate," said Quincey Gamble, political director for 1199 SEIU, which recently bolstered its political strength by merging with its much larger New York affiliate. "We're in this to make sure Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is no longer governor, and Martin O'Malley gives us the best chance to do that."

The service union is considered one of the most effective labor groups nationally; in Maryland, it pushed for landmark legislation adopted by the General Assembly this year requiring large corporations - in effect, only Wal-Mart - to spend more on health care. More broadly, union support is important for candidates because it brings money, votes and grass roots campaigning resources.

But neither Duncan nor O'Malley appear likely to win total union support.

Merle Cuttitta, president of SEIU's Local 500, based in Montgomery County, said the state's locals would probably go separate ways in next year's contested Democratic primary. She stopped short of saying her group would endorse Duncan.

"We try very hard to speak with one voice - sometimes we can, sometimes we can't," Cuttitta said. "For a primary, while we try to get there, we might not be able to do so."

Carnell Reed, president of SEIU Local 400 in Prince Georges County, put it more bluntly: "Doug [Duncan] has been there for labor on his end. We're definitely going to split."

Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux downplayed the significance of O'Malley's planned announcement, saying that the combined strength of the Washington-region service locals exceeded that of 1199.

But Jonathan Epstein, the O'Malley campaign manager, said 1199's connections with New York bring greater access to money and volunteers.

The service union divisions could reflect a broader regional trend, interviews with labor officials show. Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the state's largest umbrella union organization, the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO - which includes the service unions - said he expects many of his group's 500 locals to face similar divisions.

Local groups could be willing to offer independent endorsements because a definitive endorsement from the AFL-CIO appears unlikely, he said. Such an endorsement requires a two-thirds majority of the 290,000-member umbrella group's leaders, and a vote would not come until near the July candidate filing deadline, Mason said.

Mason said about half of the group's Maryland members live in the Baltimore metropolitan region and 45 percent live in the Washington-area suburbs, with the rest residing in other parts of the state.

"If they can't achieve the two-thirds, there is no endorsement," Mason said. "Then the local unions are free to support any candidate that they want."

Glenard S. Middleton Sr., a statewide leader in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he expects similar divisions in his group - the state's largest individual union - but predicted they would not be permanent.

"We're split now. But we'll come together," he said.

While AFSCME locals have not publicly said whom they will support, two other Baltimore-based groups are lining up behind O'Malley.

Ron DeJuliis, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, said his group will back the mayor's run for governor. He also said the Operating Engineers Local 37, for which he is business manager, will throw its support behind O'Malley.

Similar unions in the Washington region, he said, are likely to support Duncan.

"I would think that some would be loyal to Doug and stick with him just as the ones up here would be loyal to Martin," DeJuliis said. "That's one thing that the Democrats do - they're loyal to one another."

Duncan and O'Malley have begun fighting for those loyalties. Both traveled to New York City this year to visit with Dennis Rivera, president of Local 1199.

It's easy to see why. The group boasts 265,000 members throughout the Northeast, Gamble said. The membership in Maryland is 8,000, mostly in Baltimore, and has been supportive of O'Malley in past elections.

Both candidates also met with the state council of all SEIU locals in Maryland on Oct. 8 in Annapolis to promote their pro-union records.

But local 1199 SEIU was not represented. Duncan supporters say that's because the group knows it cannot get the other locals to support O'Malley. But Gamble said union did not show up because it had gathered enough information about both candidates.

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