Josh Kurtz: Talking Union Blues

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Jos Williams is a big man in these parts.

He’s been the president of the Greater Washington Metropolitan Labor Council of the AFL-CIO since 1982 – and was the first African-American to ever hold that post. Quiet and unassuming in public, still speaking with a trace of a lilt from his native Jamaica, he’s a powerhouse behind the scenes, whose advice and support is always a highly-prized commodity for Washington-area politicians and civic leaders.

But a long-time elected official and labor ally came away from a recent meeting in Williams’ office struck by the realization that his old friend didn’t seem to have much to do.

If ever there was a metaphor for the state of the labor movement in Maryland – and in the D.C. suburbs in particular – this may have been it.

It’s a strange, unhappy time for organized labor. Not only is the labor movement under assault in high-profile battles on Capitol Hill and in Midwestern state capitals from Republicans seeking to demolish century-old social compacts. Unions locally are finding that some of their most reliable allies in public office are – if not turning on them, as some of the heated rhetoric suggests – at least demanding major concessions from workers as governments wrestle with long-term, structural budget deficits.

It isn’t pretty, and labor leaders in Maryland – and the rank and file – can be forgiven if they seem confused by the mixed signals emanating from Annapolis and county governments these days.

On the one hand, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) brings tears to people’s eyes as he sings the labor anthem “Joe Hill” at Jos Williams’ group’s annual dinner this spring. And he scrambles to get in front of an Annapolis rally staged by public employee unions to protest proposed budget and benefit cuts, assuring the 15,000 people assembled on Lawyers Mall, “Our state is not like other states.”

On the other hand, O’Malley works with legislators to roll back pensions and benefits for newer state workers – the very things the people were there to protest.

It’s the same story in Rockville and Upper Marlboro. Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett (D), a good friend to labor in his quarter century in public office, declares that the county is too broke to honor the collective bargaining agreements it negotiated with its public sector unions. And County Council President Valerie Ervin (D), a former union organizer no less, pushes through cuts in health care benefits for government workers and helps engineer a new arbitration law that the unions aren’t wild about.

Next door, new Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), who was elected last year with substantial union support, is telling workers that the county can’t afford the raises his predecessor negotiated before leaving office. A faint promise of bonuses is offered as an alternative.

In any policy negotiation, there are economic realities and political realities. The state and counties’ dire fiscal straits are out there for everyone to see, and easy enough to comprehend – even the unions acknowledge them and concede that their members will have to do their share and make some sacrifices.

The politics of the moment are considerably more complex. Surely Maryland union leaders, beneath the grousing, would say they’re lucky, that Martin O’Malley is no Scott Walker, that Valerie Ervin is surely no Chris Christie (thought that didn’t stop Montgomery unions from going to court earlier this year to battle some of Leggett’s maneuvers).

But watching liberal Democratic politicians in Maryland anger a core constituency, it’s hard not to wonder: just how much juice do the unions have right now?

Sure, at times, they can be very influential. The teachers union in Montgomery County boasts about winning 44 of the 47 county, legislative and school board races it got involved in last year. The Service Employees International Union has been very effective in targeted races, taking out then-state Sen. Rona Kramer in last year’s Democratic primary, for example.

On a broader scale, former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) might still be in office if it weren’t for the enmity and hustle of the city’s teachers union. And any entity that can bring 15,000 protesters to Annapolis, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, on a random evening in March, is a force to be reckoned with.

But Democratic politicians just don’t seem as beholden to labor as they once were, and they are clearly making political calculations as they ponder what they owe and what they can dispense with. A Democrat with national ambitions, like O’Malley, will certainly want to remain friendly with labor. But if he can find some middle ground, if he can create a model for easing government’s burden from employee wages, benefits and pensions without infuriating workers and their unions, he knows he’ll attract some attention and some positive media.

Every time a Montgomery County politician takes a few steps away from labor, he knows he’ll get a pat on the back from the editorial writers of The Washington Post, whose crusade against local public employee unions is so rabid and knee-jerk that they risk losing all credibility on the subject (and it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that they condemned Scott Walker for trying to blow up the unions in Wisconsin).

But for someone like Valerie Ervin, who is expected to run for county executive in 2014, it isn’t a bad deal. She can score points with the Post, which continues to have influence in Montgomery County Democratic primaries, while continuing to tout her union organizing past (a likely rival for the county’s top job, Councilman George Leventhal, was noticeably disowned by the Post editorial board during last year’s campaign for his pro-labor stances).

Looking ahead to the wide open 2014 gubernatorial election, how influential will the unions be in anointing the Democratic nominee? Is labor support a “nice to have,” or will it be essential?

The more you think about it, the more you think Maryland unions might almost prefer to be fighting a bona fide villain, like Scott Walker, than dealing with the ambiguity they’re facing now. Unfortunately for them, it isn’t likely to dissipate any time soon.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Peter Principle

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.