WASHINGTON – AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said Wednesday the legislation passed last week in Maryland to require employers to spend a percentage of their payrolls on employee health care was the "first crisp punch" in the fight for workers' rights.
Speaking at the National Press Club, Sweeney said the organization is launching similar health care campaigns in more than 30 states. Maryland's law — approved by the General Assembly over Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto objection — is the first in the nation to require large employers, those with at least 10,000 workers, to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on worker health care. Wal-Mart is the only company in Maryland now affected by the law.
"What are we going to do about the destruction of good jobs in our country, the jobs that for the past half-century helped us create the largest middle class, the most dynamic economy and the strongest democracy in the history of the world?" Sweeney said in announcing the union campaign.
The U.S. poverty rate was up in 2004, Sweeney said, the first time on record that household incomes failed to increase for five years in a row.
America has decided to compete in the global marketplace by degrading work and workers through privatization and de-unionization, rather than competing through innovation and ingenuity, said Sweeney, head of the nation's largest association of labor unions.
With the absence of rules in the emerging global workforce, he said, "corporations have pitted the new workers against American workers in a merciless race to the bottom."
But Maryland Senate Republicans paint a less rosy picture of the effect Maryland's new law will have on workers and the economy.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said the new government interference would drive prices for the consumer up and not necessarily help workers. The General Assembly's vote was "pure politics," he said, and the law is a tool for micromanaging businesses.
"The government should not be managing private business," Stolzfus said. "We have a higher quality of life with Wal-Mart."
This sends a hostile message to employers who want to bring employees to Maryland, said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester.
"It's bad for consumers, bad for growth, bad for the small businesses that will be targeted," Colburn said. "You have to rename Maryland 'The People's Republic of Maryland,' now that we're the leader of the socialized medicine movement."
Sweeney argued, however, that employees are not the only ones being harmed by these processes. It leaves businesses with consumers who do not have enough money to spend, and it leaves government with more demand for subsidies and public services.
"If I were president," Sweeney said, "I would admit to the joint session of Congress that we're barely creating enough new jobs to match the growth in our workforce, and increasingly, the jobs we are generating are dead-end alleys.
"I'd insist that we reverse those policies and lift workers everywhere by demanding that workers' rights be afforded as much protection as corporate interests in all present and future trade agreements."
Sweeney also said he would demand the repeal of tax laws that encourage corporations to send jobs out of the country.
He detailed measures the AFL-CIO is taking to fight the injustices he listed, including the report cards the organization issued this month on congressional voting records.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.