Workers' rights groups claimed victory yesterday in the Maryland legislation that would require Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay more for employee health care but said they don't anticipate widespread changes in the retailer's labor practices.
Still, labor activists hope the law will force the retailer to improve benefits for employees as more states consider legislation similar to Maryland's Fair Share Health Care Fund Act.
"I'm sure it will take some time to see major change," said Jill Cashen, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the labor groups behind the first-of-its-kind bill. "Our union and local unions will take on more legislation. Maryland is just the beginning really."
At least 30 other states are expected to consider similar legislation in the coming months, union leaders say.
Sarah Clark, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, told the Associated Press yesterday that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce had questioned the validity of the law. The retailer, or a group on its behalf, could challenge the legislation in court, drawing out the decision.
"I'm sure that is something our attorneys are looking into as we decide our course of action," she said.
Organized labor was a driving force behind legislation passed this week by the Maryland General Assembly, requiring private companies in the state with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on worker health care or pay the difference to a state medical assistance fund.
Wal-Mart, which employs 17,000 Marylanders, is the only company that will be affected.
In enacting the bill on Thursday over the objections of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Assembly tried to help some of Maryland's uninsured workers, but at the same time was responding to a confluence of election-year forces.
The Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House agreed with the arguments of labor unions, Wal-Mart competitors, such as the Giant supermarket chain, and small businesses that came together to argue successfully that the low-cost behemoth was not paying its fair share to insure workers' health.
The vote reflects the continuing strength of organized labor in Maryland, which remains a 2-1 Democratic state with a large unionized work force. It also shows the importance of health care as an issue that drives voter decisions.
In a survey issued this week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies of Annapolis, 1 in 5 voters said the cost of health care was the most important issue facing the state. The only issue of greater importance was education.
"A lot of people who used to get health coverage for free have to pay for it now," said pollster Patrick Gonzales. "At its base, it is a pocketbook issue with voters."
Gonzales' survey, published two days before the override vote and widely circulated in Annapolis, also found that 55 percent of Maryland voters favored an override of Ehrlich's veto, with 34 percent opposed.
All but one of the General Assembly's 57 Republicans, Del. Jean Cryor of Montgomery County, sided with the governor and with Wal-Mart.
All but 11 of 131 Democrats said the company should pay more for health care.
Critics said the law will do little to boost health care.
"The Democrats showed that they can produce for the people who ring their bell," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the Republican whip.
"The labor unions are still very powerful in the state of Maryland. Until we change the legislature, the extreme left will be in charge."
Wal-Mart has been a major target of organized labor because its stores aren't unionized and it is the largest private employer in the country.
Last year, the company closed a store in Canada after it became unionized, raising the ire of labor leaders.
"We urge Wal-Mart to improve its benefits on its own, but we endorse legislative remedy until they embrace change for itself," said Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch.
The nonprofit group, backed by labor and environmental groups, aims to press the retailer to change its business practices.
Others who follow Wal-Mart don't expect this week's development in Maryland will cause any transformation - for the company or labor's relationship with it.
"No business wants to spend more than it has to," said Bill Adams, president of a management and labor relations consulting firm in Kentucky.
"If Wal-Mart is able to attract people to work in their stores for what they pay and the benefits they provide, it's the free enterprise system at work. Nobody forces them to work there."
If other states follow Maryland, the company is likely to reduce its work force or cut costs in other ways rather than absorb increased health costs, labor experts said. It's unlikely to close stores in response because that could cut too deeply into revenue, experts said.
Some in Maryland are worried that Wal-Mart will back out of plans to open a distribution center on the Eastern Shore that would bring 1,000 jobs.
"They'll carry on doing what they do," said Brenda Cochrane, director of the labor studies program at San Francisco State University. "I'm not under the illusion that Wal-Mart without a lot of pressure and unless it's hurting their bottom line seriously will change their ways."