Maryland just took a positive step toward expanding workers' rights. And the move could have larger implications around the country.
The state's General Assembly passed a law called the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act that will require Wal-Mart and other large employers to dedicate 8 percent of its payroll costs to employee health care. If employers fall short of this mark, they will have to pay the difference to the state's health-care program for low-income families.
Many other states may use Maryland's law as a template to introduce similar legislation this year. In the process, Maryland is helping to redefine the social compact with America's workers.
Wal-Mart executives, business leaders and conservative politicians have criticized Maryland lawmakers for undeservedly beating up on the retail giant.
But those lawmakers were responding to the demands of hard-working people across the state who are struggling with exorbitant health care costs. Taxpayers who don't want to give big companies a free ride, unions and other organizations that represent the interests of working families -- and even some Wal-Mart consumers -- also pushed for reform.
An amazing 66 percent of Marylanders supported this bill.
When customers register outrage about the unfavorable practices of their favorite brands, positive changes occur.
McDonald's replaced its plastic foam packaging with more environmentally friendly paper products.
Nike was forced to address sweatshop labor conditions in its shoe-manufacturing facilities.
And Starbucks began selling "fair-trade" coffee that properly compensated coffee plantation workers and small farmers.
Wal-Mart, too, can be required to become a better corporate citizen. With $256 billion in profits last fiscal year and 1.6 million employees worldwide, Wal-Mart's labor-relations model sets far-reaching standards.
The company's willingness to suppress pay and benefits, disregard labor regulations regarding break time and other working conditions and squash employee efforts to form unions has a devastating social impact.
When the world's largest employer applies this model to its workforce, it has a hand in legitimizing these practices and enabling its vendors and rivals to follow suit.
As a result, competition fueled by the violation of workers' rights creates a race to the bottom.
Maryland's Fair Share law sets a floor for employee benefits among rival businesses. By doing so, the cost of health care benefits will no longer be a variable employers can use to increase profitability.
Maryland is pointing the way. We must demand that our democratic beliefs about fair play, justice and equality be extended to workplaces.
Mary Beth Maxwell is executive director of American Rights at Work, a national workers' rights advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.