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March 16, 2011

Mr. Boh No Mo

Norman M. Covert

“Mr. Boh” gave Maryland a pretty good beer and the moniker, “The Land of Pleasant Living.” In the good old days Baltimore had the Colts as perennial contendahs; the blue collar Orioles on 33rd street; Bethlehem Steel; the B&O and seafood dives that gave the inner harbor character.


It is still pronounced:  /ˈbɒltɨmɔr/, colloquially /ˈbɒlmɔr/), but the city and state have changed, Hon.


You can thank labor unions and gullible politicians who were consumers of campaign contributions and wielded power in the urban centers. The Golden Goose has gone south.


From all indications, the union stranglehold on business and government is about to loosen dramatically. We have the courage of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to thank for lancing the festering sore created by its government employee bargaining unions. This trend can only continue as states scramble to restore fiscal sanity and fend off virtual bankruptcy.


What a surprise that Gov. Martin O’Malley apparently has the courage to follow the lead of Governor Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in crossing swords with unions. With $19 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $16 billion in retiree health liabilities, Governor O’Malley has had to face off his biggest supporters, requiring state employees to make a bigger contribution to their benefits package.


Maryland union web sites were filled with calls for participants to protest at the State House Monday. Estimates are that “thousands” showed up. It hardly matched the recent chaos oat Madison, WI, which did not prevent the decision to increase employee contributions and put restrictions on bargaining rights.


Del. Kelly Schulz (R., 4A-Frederick) provided a ground-level picture on her Facebook™ page Monday night of what may be the last vestiges of union power in Maryland. They were wall to wall, trying to flex their political muscle. We’ll see if the legislators surrender.


Unions dramatically changed the labor environment in America for the better, but it took muscle power and some thuggery to convince management that workers deserved some basic rights. Historical references show the overwhelming power unions assumed after World War II to the point of breaking the backs of some industries.


Recent economic analyses support the notion that Baltimore’s industrial base crumbled under the weight of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), its United Steel Workers of America (USWA), Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


The union-dominated Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio railroads once thrived serving the several plants, including Bethlehem Steel. They are but a memory, having declared bankruptcy and/or merged into CSX and Amtrak, running the northeast corridor.


The Baltimore’s economic council report highlights the World War II birth of union bargaining rights with Bethlehem Steel. It also chronicles the start of decline in the late 1970s. Families in Dundalk had achieved stability and were committed to the steel and shipbuilding industries. If you didn’t go to college, you did a stint at Bethlehem Steel.


The 15,714 workers at Sparrows Point were granted health benefits, vacation and sick leave in 1941 after the union was voted in as bargaining agent.


Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the country in 1950 with a population of 950,000 and a “thriving manufacturing and shipping industry.” A true blue collar metropolis, Baltimore’s textile and automobile production joined the powerhouse Bethlehem Steel in providing 75 percent of all jobs for workers in the region.


Alas, more than 100,000 manufacturing jobs were lost between 1950 and 1995, 75 percent of Baltimore’s industrial employment – most of the jobs boasted union representation. You may count just six percent of all jobs in manufacturing today.


Bethlehem Steel made efforts in vain to keep up with new technology, but it could not compete with foreign steel. The price of domestic product was being held hostage by labor unions. Workers had a generous pay plan, a signing bonus, a hefty managed health care plan, retirement and severance plans. It’s pretty good if it can be sustained – the company couldn’t cope.


A July 1993 item in Baltimore’s Sun reported the pending strike of steel workers at Sparrows Point. It would have been the first such strike in 24 years, affecting subsidiaries in Indiana and New York. Ultimately the company capitulated, but it was the beginning of the end of prosperity. The contract tightened the economic stranglehold.


The Sparrows Point shipyard complex was auctioned off in 2004 when Baltimore Marine Industries went bankrupt. The steel plant itself was sold and now is being operated by a Moscow-based conglomerate. Not surprisingly, United Steel Workers Local 9477 has been in a running fight with the new owners over issues that have already negatively impacted the company’s bottom line.


To make things worse, two new non-union shop plants in Alabama and Mississippi are out-producing Sparrows Point. Both states are among the 22 which have a “right-to-work” law. It guarantees non-union workers cannot be penalized and have the same rights as union affiliated employees. A proposal to make Maryland a right-to-work state is languishing in committee.


Dealing with the unions, who reject the notion of concessions, is a battle legislators didn’t want to fight in Annapolis, but Maryland cannot print its own money and taxpayers have lost patience. Waving signs in the street won’t change the state’s fiscal bottom line. It’s time to get on with business and the unions can choose to be part of the solution.



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