Blog

  • Memorial Day Right to Health Launch

    This Memorial day, United Workers will mark the launch of our Right to Health Campaign with a memorial at Springfield Hospital to remember and honor our fallen soldiers in this ever growing war on the poor.

    Springfield Hospital is the site of Maryland’s Potter’s field, a mass grave for the unidentified and “unclaimed” cremains of those impoverished Marylanders who were too poor to afford a funeral. According to Maryland law, a family has 72-hours to claim their relatives body and provide for their funerary services. If they cannot afford to claim their loved one, the body is taken by the Anatomy Board and sold in whole or in parts as a cadaver for medical research. Their final resting spot is a mass grave at Springfield Hospital, where a single anonymous plaque marks their contribution to science, but makes no mention of the reality that so many did not consent, did not have a choice.

    Since our early days of organizing we have understood the many ways that poverty affects our overall health. Poverty robs us, our families, and our communities of freedom, dignity, and life itself. By honoring and remembering our family and friends, we are claiming that we, the poor and dispossessed, are not anonymous, disposable, and useful only insofar as we produce profit for this system. We are calling out the immorality of poverty in one of the richest states in the richest country in the world and exposing its death-dealing implications.

    Join us on Monday, May 27th at 2pm to make visible the life and death stakes of the growing poverty in one of the richest states in the world. Click here to RSVP. 

    photo taken of the plaque at Springfield Hospital

    JUSTICE JAM ART BUILDS

    In preparation for our campaign launch and memorial at Springfield Hospital, we have scheduled a series of Justice Jam Art Builds in each of our regions. Last weekend we hosted our first art build in Carroll County. 

    At these Justice Jams we will focus on the meaning of the Right to Health and ask the questions; In what ways has poverty contributed to the deaths and/or poor health of you or your loved ones? What would it mean for Maryland to guarantee the right to health? We are turning our responses into banners, signs, and art that help to make visible the health crisis of poverty. Come join us for our upcoming Justice Jam Art Builds for a chance to tell your right to health story and to help in creating art for the movement. 

    Upcoming Justice Jam Art Builds 


    BALTIMORE: 

    When: Saturday, May 4th from 12pm-5pm

    Where: Transfiguration Catholic Community Church 

                  775 W Hamburg St, Baltimore, MD 21230

    RSVP:https://www.unitedworkers.org/rsvp_may_4th_justice_jam_art_build 

     

    WESTERN-ALLEGANY: 

    When: Saturday, May 11th at 4pm

    Where: Souls Won 

                 130 Virginia Avenue Cumberland, MD 21502

    RSVP: https://www.unitedworkers.org/rsvp_for_right_to_health_art_build

  • We're Getting Into Step

    Since deciding on our Right to Health campaign at our Statewide Membership Assembly in December, we have been busy strategizing and planning the Spring launch of our new campaign and our Summer organizing drive. Through this 10-week organization-wide process, we have been grounding ourselves in the current moment, reflecting on lessons learned from last year, and creating annual plans for our regional committees and statewide teams. We are using this time to get into step, because we know the fight for our right to health is a protracted fight that will require a mass organization led by the poor in Maryland. 

    In the coming weeks, we will have more to share from our strategic planning process. In the meantime, this e-alert will include a reflection from one of our members Mike Hughes on how strategic planning is going so far, a video created by our Media Team recapping our Year of Reconnaissance and the collective process that led to our Right to Health Campaign, and information on the Access to Counsel program. 


    Year of Reconnaissance: Deciding on our Right to Health Campaign 

    When we began our year-long process of reconnaissance to determine our next campaign, we assumed that we would be zeroing in on a single-issue campaign around housing, healthcare, or public benefits. But a year of collective listening, research, and study against the backdrop of post-pandemic austerity (Expanded Child Tax Credit, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.) underscored the deep interconnections between our basic needs and the ways that poverty is harming our health, the health of our families, and communities. In one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation in the world, 38% of Marylanders are unable to afford their housing, healthcare, childcare, transportation, and other basic needs. The denial of our basic human rights and the stress that this produces is leading to illness and premature death. As many of you know, in the last year alone, we lost three members to the violence of poverty and crowdsourced to help pay for two memorial and funeral services. This video from the Media Team highlights this process and some of the leaders who are taking up this new Right to Health campaign. 


    Right to Counsel 

    Maryland continues to have one of the highest eviction filings in the country. More than 400,000 failure to pay rent cases were filed in 2023. Our neighbors in Pennsylvania and Virginia combined do not have such a high number of cases. 

    United Workers is working with the Access to Counsel and Evictions Program statewide to get tenants legal representation. Under a law passed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic the state is funding additional legal support to renters. If you have questions about your legal rights, difficulty getting your landlord to honor your lease agreement or otherwise have concerns about needed repairs to your residence -

    • Please call 2-1-1 and ask to do the Access to Counsel intake. Once that is completed legal services in your region will contact you. 
    • If your landlord has threatened you with eviction please call 2-1-1 and do the intake. It is much better to get legal counsel prior to going to court. 

    And if you have any questions please contact United Workers.


    Member Reflection

    What Does Systemic Change Look Like?

    Written By: Mike Hughes, United Workers Member from Hagerstown, MD

    In the Jewish scriptures in the book of Isaiah there is a passage that talks about not despising the beginning of small things, where God says, "See I am doing a new thing here -- do you not perceive it?" As if to ask, would you recognize the beginning of systemic change if you saw it? What does systemic change look like? 

    In his book "It's Not Enough to Be Angry" Willie Baptist talks about the need for organizers to study, to strategize, to be smarter and more nimble than their larger and better funded opponents -- that no dumb force has ever defeated a smart force in the history of the world…… READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

  • What Does Systemic Change Look Like?

    What Does Systemic Change Look Like?

    And would you know it if you saw it?

     

    In the Jewish scriptures in the book of Isaiah there is a passage that talks about not despising the beginning of small things, where God says, "See I am doing a new thing here -- do you not perceive it?" As if to ask, would you recognize the beginning of systemic change if you saw it? What does systemic change look like? 

    In his book "It's Not Enough to Be Angry" Willie Baptist talks about the need for organizers to study, to strategize, to be smarter and more nimble than their larger and better funded opponents -- that no dumb force has ever defeated a smart force in the history of the world.

    Over the last two days, I've seen the culmination of United Workers' efforts after the year of reconnaissance, annual assembly, and the gathering of various committees to map out plans for the coming year. United Workers met to present those plans, to lay out their vision for 2024 and beyond, and you know what? In the opinion of this participant, it might actually work! If somebody was going to do what we're trying to do, which is, you know, nothing major -- to end poverty -- I can't think of a better way to do it. 

    This is coming from someone who has been trying to get out of United Workers since I joined. Mind you, that's not a reflection on them. I grew up with chronic abuse and I'm wary of joining any organization like this. My name is Mike Hughes from Western Maryland. I'm autistic and my wife has heart failure and we have struggled to pay our bills for the last 20 years. Over that same time, I've watched America turn more and more into a white Christian nationalist hellscape, all while the poor and working class fight for scraps. Their poverty is a chain around their necks, pulling them into an early grave. And if they live in Baltimore and their family can't afford to collect their body, that grave will be in a potter's field. Whatever's left of them, that is, after their bodies have literally been sold for parts (no, I'm not making that up.) 

    It's a shame but not a surprise and somebody has to do something about it. What would that look like? Do we march in the streets? Sure that has its place. I mean, that's why I'm here in United Workers, coming here by way of the Poor People's Campaign, after seeing Reverend Barber on TV during the George Floyd uprising.

    Marches and rallies make an impact but there has to be follow-up and, more importantly, there has to be infrastructure. There have to be people in place who you can call, who will listen to your story and give you friendship and hope and a place to release your economic and societal trauma -- a place to take that fireball of hurt and frustration and transform it into positive life-giving energy, or can we even dare to say: true power. Because when the masses of the poor and working class realize who they really are, everything is going to change.

     

    Mike Hughes, United Workers Member from Hagerstown, MD

  • Through the Darkness and Fog, a Clear Path Emerges

    Fog. So thick, like I could reach of my car window and grab a handful. Driving through the woods, up the side of a mountain in the dark. My headlights create an otherworldly glow, shining into the mist. Essentially driving blind, I track the GPS on my phone to see the direction of the road, whether I will stay on the path or tumble into the trees below, until I arrive at the Skycroft Conference Center in Middletown, MD.

    This was the journey that I and many others took in early December to attend United Workers' Annual Assembly, including representatives from partner organizations from across the country: the Poor People's Campaign, the National Union of the Homeless, the Vermont Workers Center, Put People First, and the Non-violent Medicaid Army, among others. We came together to advance the interests of the 140 million poor and dispossessed Americans of the working class who are not represented by either of our nation's political parties.

    The Culmination of a Year of Reconnaissance

    Going into enemy territory to assess their adversary's strengths and vulnerabilities, United Workers has been engaged in its Year of Reconnaissance, reaching out to both urban and rural communities across the state of Maryland. Doing a lot of listening to find out what the real issues are, to find out what's really going on, along with singing and sharing meals, getting a taste of what hope feels like when we come together across lines of division.

    What were some of the issues that emerged? Housing. Healthcare. Food. Safety. Interlocking needs which quickly become interlocking crisis' when one of them goes unmet. When you don't have stable housing, you can't take care of yourself, damaging your health, both mental and physical, leaving you prey to food insecurity and threats to your physical safety. When one fails, they all fail, like sitting on a chair with a wobbly leg. We tumble to the ground before we even realize what happened.

    Given the nature of these interlocking threats, the membership of United Workers chose to fight for health as a human right. Not just healthcare. But health. Which includes housing, healthcare, nutritious food, and safety, among other issues. They decided that only by adopting this broad framework can our needs be adequately addressed. That being deprived of any one of them is being deprived of all of them.

    The Right to Health as a Unifying Vision

    Something strange happened while I was driving through that fog. I couldn't see the sky or the trees moving past me, or even the edges of the road. It looked like I was standing still. But I could feel the car moving. This disconnect between my eyes and what I could feel made me feel sick almost instantly.

    Living in this country, we're told that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That each of us possesses certain inalienable rights. For no other reason than that we exist. Yet when we look at our country, that's not what we see. We see the rights of a minuscule few prioritized over the rights of the dispossessed many. The ruling class asserts its will as a matter of brute fact, like a pebble sitting on the beach, declaring its lordship over the sand. 

    It's a disconnect. What we're being told and what we see don't match. And there's a part of us that feels sick because of it. Like something is off, but we can't explain it. That's why we have ventured into the foggy darkness to find each other. Those of us who see. To affirm each other, to strengthen each other, to heal each other. Because against all hope, we dare to hope. With a faith that boldly declares that the sun still shines. We will not despair. We will not give up or be divided. We stand united to fight for Health as a Human Right. For everyone.

    -----

    Byline: Mike Hughes lives in Western MD with his strange and wonderful family. He enjoys religion and philosophy, crime dramas, sci-fi, Playstation, and anything Superman related. He came to United Workers after the George Floyd uprising. He and his wife both live with ongoing disability and have struggled due to low wages and inadequate payments from Social Security disability insurance.

  • Uniting Across Difference

    What do the poor in Western Maryland have in common with the poor in Baltimore? Seemingly separated by race and culture, taught by the media to fear each other, how could they possibly have common cause? It turns out, both struggle to pay for housing. Both endure unfair labor practices. Both are unable to pay for basic healthcare. Both live with the persistent ache that their whole life could fall apart with no warning.

    On June 10 in Western Maryland, United Workers held a membership orientation at Hager Park, near downtown Hagerstown. There, we brought together voices, both urban and rural, that rarely hear from each other. What emerged was a profound unity. Not a unity based on political affiliation or race, gender, or orientation, but a unity based on the shared experience of being poor in America.

    This unity of purpose came with an unexpected benefit. The benefit of joy. The joy that comes when the burden of shame is lifted, the shame of being poor and being told that it’s our fault. Together, those who gathered learned that systemic poverty doesn’t care if they are white or black, trans or straight, young or old. Because systemic poverty consumes everyone in its path.

    With our focus on developing leaders from the ranks of the poor, we shared our Theory of Change — identifying the root problem, then asking who can change it and how. It is here that we find the crucial point: only by uniting across differences can the poor become “a new and unsettling force,” to stop being afraid and start being involved.

    This involvement involves planning, strategy, and, most importantly, reconnaissance or fact-finding to determine our enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. That enemy is poverty in all its forms. We laid out our plan to accomplish this “Year of Reconnaissance” in 2023 through collective listening, collective research, collective study, and collective decision-making. Because only collectively can such an enemy as poverty be defeated, with the poor of Baltimore and Western Maryland standing together.

    Written by: Mike Hughes, United Workers member

     

    Here are some more reflections on the New Member Orientation from our members across the state

    I was so struck by the enthusiasm and efficiency of the clearly dedicated Baltimore organizing team! It was obvious from the response of the diverse crowd of new members from across the state that so many of us are hungering for an end to the inequality and inhumane treatment of the poor. I am so proud to join this organization and to be a part of this movement! - Janet Kay, United Workers member from Allegheny County

     

    Hearing the views of other members from around the state made me feel very optimistic and excited about the next steps in building this movement to end poverty. People shared their stories of struggle and seemed excited to be connected to this organization and the movement.  - Randolph Ford, United Workers member from Baltimore City

     

    The main thing that stood out to me was meeting and engaging with different people from around the state. It made me see that poverty has no color or race. We all are living in poverty and we must unite together as a class across different barriers of division in order to make a change. - Nadiyah Patterson, United Workers member from Baltimore City

     


     

    UPCOMING EVENTS: JUSTICE JAM BBQ’s! 

     

    We are continuing our series of Justice Jams across the state, but we’re taking it outside! Join us for these special Summer BBQ Justice Jams as we continue to share our stories and information about how we can file appeals to food stamp cuts, prepare ourselves for Medicaid cuts, and unite in the fight for our basic human rights!

     

    Cumberland Justice Jam BBQ 

    • WHEN: Saturday, July 29th, 4-6pm 
    • WHERE: 311 E. 3rd St, Cumberland, MD - Also known as Smith Park
    • Contact info: Call or text Janet at 301-514-5551

     

    Baltimore Justice Jam BBQ

    • WHEN: Saturday, August 5th, 4-7pm 
    • WHERE: 625 N Carey St, Baltimore, MD 21217-2410
    • Contact info: Terrel Askew- 443-509-3328, Michael Coleman- 445-560-2810

     

    Westminster Justice Jam BBQ

    • WHEN: Saturday, August 26th, 4-6pm
    • WHERE: Westminster City Park Pavilion
    • Contact info: (443) 340-5403 or (443) 605-9146

     


     

  • Returning to a Cruel Normal

    A couple of months ago, the federal government declared the COVID-19 pandemic officially over, signaling the end of an era of federal emergency response. And yet even before this official marker, we have witnessed a steady roll-back of the protections and programs that temporarily provided some measure of relief to poor and working class people during this crisis. We saw the eviction moratorium lifted and Emergency Rental Assistance funds exhausted. We saw Congress fail to preserve the Expanded Child Tax Credit, a program that helped to cut child poverty nearly in half. Now, we are facing the devastating cuts to SNAP (often referred to as food stamps) and Medicaid. An estimated 100,000 Marylanders will lose their healthcare. If that wasn’t enough, the recent debt limit deal imposes new work requirements on people up to 54 years old receiving SNAP and TANF benefits. 

    This Spring our statewide outreach has focused on these cuts as members began receiving letters in the mail that their food stamps were being slashed, in many cases from hundreds of dollars a month to less than $30. We asked who and how are people being affected by these cuts, but also why? Why in a country where 119 billion pounds of food is wasted each year is anyone struggling to eat? 

    As long-time member and great-grandmother Marie Diggins shared, “When I first got SNAP benefits I was homeless. But now that I have a place to live my expenses have gone up since the pandemic—gas and electric, water. The $153 I currently get is really not enough to live on. I skip meals because I'm not getting enough in SNAP benefits. I have skipped breakfasts. I don't bother with breakfast anymore.” She continued, “I don't think this is right. It is really stingy. The government has the funds to make sure people have enough to eat.”

    The cruelty of these unnecessary cuts is underscored by the reality that they are coming at a time when food pantries and other emergency food providers are seeing an unprecedented demand, due to inflation generally and the rising prices of groceries specifically. We have seen the growing numbers at our food pantry outreach in Baltimore, Cumberland, and Westminster. We invited people to join us at our last round of Justice Jams to discuss the SNAP cuts and what we can do to fight back. 

    At our last Justice Jam in Cumberland, the library room where we met was packed 30 deep. Members from Baltimore traveled to hear how people in a rural Appalachian community were being impacted by these cuts. We talked about our rights and how to file for an appeal, but more importantly it served as a space to share our struggles and break our isolation. We discussed the interconnections between issues and what we need and deserve. People demanded jobs that paid a living wage and decried the terrible housing conditions in the community. One man who we have gotten to know over the past year finally shared his story, explaining that his minimum wage job was made worse by the great expenses he was made to pay for his employer-based healthcare.   

    After the meeting, Sidney Bond, a Media Team member from Baltimore, interviewed people further about how the SNAP cuts are impacting them. Allegheny County resident Sean Everhart explained his situation, “During the pandemic our food stamps were increased to $275 a month. With the rising costs of everything else, for 3 years we were accustomed to living off of that amount. Then I got a letter that our food stamps were being cut from $275 to $27 a month. Now food hasn't gotten any cheaper and all of our bills are going up. It’s not even worth the hassle and headache of going down to social services just for $27 a month. I’m on social security disability, I have a fixed income that doesn’t change.” Then he asked a question we are all asking, “How are we supposed to live off of $27 a month?”

    One answer is that we’re literally not living off these crumbs. We’re dying. As recent research has revealed, poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. These are life and death questions. How are we supposed to live off of $27 a month? Another answer is that we’re not supposed to live like this. We believe that our basic human needs are human rights. As Ms. Marie asserted, “This should be an obligation to make sure in the United States we have what we need to live.” 

     

    Have you experienced cuts to your food stamp benefits? If so, and you would like to learn more about your rights to an appeal contact Michael Coleman at 443-560-2810 or [email protected].

     


    Project of Survival

    Activities are continuing at the Hope Garden as we prepare for planting and harvesting. The Hope Garden is an essential project of survival especially now during this time when benefit cuts have left many households in dire need of support. We have regular build days every Thursday from 4pm-7pm. During build days we build raised garden beds, plant produce, share our stories and plan for the grow season. Come out and join us! For more information contact Michael Coleman at [email protected] or call (443) 560-2810.


    Memorial - Ascended Leader

     Ms. Rosemarie was kind, gentle, and thoughtful. She began to question why she struggled so much in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. She would attend Justice Jams, base building meetings, and our Membership Assembly last December. When we lose leaders like her in this fight, it is a loss to the entire movement family. Though we mourn and miss her we will also remember and celebrate her memory. Rest in Power Sister Rosemarie. 

     

     

  • Updates From the Field: Justice Jam in Westminster

    After spending several months organizing in Carroll County we were able to host our first Justice Jam in Westminster. Several United Workers leaders from Baltimore joined together with some of our Westminster leaders to welcome other residents of the county to talk about the issues of poverty they see in their community and may be experiencing themselves. Discussions center around readings from Kairos Center’s We Cry Justice book. People began to relate to each other on shared trauma around housing and homelessness, food insecurity, and access to health care. The group recognized how we live in the land of plenty and despite that, there are so many people with nothing or very little.

    Here are pictures from the day and a quote from United Workers’ leader, Sidney Bond.

     

    " I did not think there was an issue with homelessness in that part Maryland. I was shocked to see the homeless encampment out there and it reminded me a lot of many parts of Baltimore, like where the homeless community would sleep under Rt 83. It showed me that homelessness and poverty is not just in the city but a problem across the state." - Sidney Bond (pictured in the middle)

  • We Cry Justice

    During this Mass Outreach season, our Base Building Team, made up of leaders in Allegany, Baltimore, and Carroll counties, has been busy outreaching to other poor people to learn more about the struggles people are facing within and across their counties. Using the projects of survival survey as framework for our conversations has been instrumental to our campaign reconnaissance process. As we seek to address people’s fundamental needs through ongoing projects of survival, we are learning more about the systems and structures that exploit and oppress us, as well as exploring ways we can push back. Coming together for regular statewide Base Building Team meetings has offered us a chance to debrief and learn from each other in order to further develop our understanding of the conditions and organizing challenges we’re seeing. 

     

    As we connect with potential members, we have been inviting them to our Justice Jams, a community event born out of a small bible study using the Kairos Center’s We Cry Justice book. We are now replicating the success of this series across the state in order to explore the history and moral underpinnings of the poor fighting for justice through biblical and other religious texts. We look forward to sharing more from these series of events. 

     

    As our Mass Outreach season comes to a close for this year we are now gearing up for our First Annual Statewide Membership Assembly. During this retreat, members from across the state as well as movement partners will be coming together to celebrate and reflect on our 20 year history as a mass organization led by the poor and recommit ourselves to the ongoing struggle to end poverty

     

    In this e-alert we will also share some updates from our Open House and another segment from “Learning as we Lead: 20 Years of United Workers”. 

     


    Updates From the Field:

    United Workers Open House

    United Workers hosted an Open House on Thursday, September 29th at our new headquarters, to reconnect and share with our wider network in Baltimore and Maryland what we’ve learned over our 20 year history, what we’ve been up to recently, and where we’re headed. It was great to see old and new faces, including many of our siblings in the MD Poor People’s Campaign, as well as potential members we’ve met through this year’s mass outreach season. 

    Click the images below to watch the corresponding segment of the program.



    Organizer Michael Coleman led a program about the 20 year history of United Workers, sharing our successes, defeats, and the lessons learned from both.  We called on our longtime leaders to participate, sharing their insights and demonstrating the dedicated leadership developed through our campaigns.


    Next, United Workers Executive Director Ashley Hufnagel spoke about the foundational connections between United Workers and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, from the meetings that preceded the launch of the campaign to our ongoing work to develop the campaign across Maryland and the nation. 


    Finally, organizer Terrell Askew focused our attention on the upcoming Year of Reconnaissance.  He shared the importance of reconnaissance before action and how we plan to collectively carry out this reconnaissance in stages over the next year with the goal of growing statewide and deciding on our next campaign.

    This event represented an important milestone for many in attendance.  For those we’ve met for the first time at our outreach events this Fall, the event was an introduction to the history and mission of United Workers, a first step into the movement to end poverty.  We, in turn, got to learn from them as we embark on our Year of Reconnaissance.  The Open House offered a first opportunity for us to share our exciting plans with our Maryland network and get initial feedback. We are excited to continue learning and listening with our base and our network over the next year.


    The following is an excerpt from this edition of our series on United Workers history.  You can read the full version here

    Part V: United Workers History

    Human Rights Zone Campaign at the Inner Harbor Part 2

    Written By: Todd Cherkis, United Workers’ Organizer




    A Pedagogy of Reflective Action – How do we get Clear about Capacity?

    The legendary Chinese General, military strategist, writer and philosopher Sun Tzu famously wrote of the necessity for both knowledge of your opponent and knowledge of yourself: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” We were learning through the organizing that the Inner Harbor opponents were managing systemic abuses from wage theft, failing to pay minimum wage, health and safety issues, no control over schedules, and more. We were learning through our research that the Inner Harbor represented entrenched power heavily invested by our public resources. And through our campaign we experienced this power organized to marginalize and keep hidden these issues we were raising.

    By years 3 and 4 of the campaign (2011 and 2012) we were concluding that we didn’t have the capacity to create the necessary leverage to achieve the change we had sought. The workplace organizing produced the same numbers of active members, the same members we classified as emerging leaders. We were not able to build a greater force that could expand exponentially each year. We had an amazing committed core but we could not grow beyond it. This was the result of too many workplaces, unpredictable schedules that hindered our ability to build relationships through home visits or group meetings and employer intimidation that further eroded the possibility of building relationships or waging a public fight.

    Ironically one of our successes at the Inner Harbor – forming the core group of leaders itself revealed that we didn’t have the capacity to fully exploit the contradictions the Inner Harbor represented. The core group emerged from a workplace struggle when ESPNZone shutdown without giving workers notice in June 2010. It was the first ESPNZone in the country, opened 12 years earlier by Disney, its parent company. The restaurant and sports bar anchored the Power Plant, developed by the Cordish Company. 

     

    ESPNZone

    As we entered the second full year of the Human Rights Zone Campaign, we got the news that ESPNZone was shutting down in less than a week. We quickly responded by sending our summer organizers team down to the restaurant to hear if this was true. We hurriedly shared our contact info with every worker in an ESPNZone uniform and gathered phone numbers. We said we will hold a meeting to better understand the situation and think together about potential redress. Thinking to ourselves… “Is this legal? Can an employer just shut down without notice like this?” 

    We contacted Peter Sabonis, at Maryland Legal AID. Sabonis and an intern XXX researched relevant laws and found that a potentially strong case could be made that ESPNZone and its parent company Disney violated the Federal WARN Act which stipulates that companies of a certain size had to give workers notice before closing. ESPN Zone employed enough people to come under the Federal law. 

    Twenty-five or so workers crammed into a Legal Aid meeting room. Workers who attended were risking whatever remaining wages they were owed. ESPNZone had threatened they would lose out if they spoke to anyone about the closing including talking to the media. We listened as workers including Emanuel McCray, Leonard Gray, Winston Gupton, Janice Watkins and Keith Brown told their experiences of finding out the news. From that first meeting this group would form the backbone of the fight against ESPNZone and to lift up the tenets of the Human Rights Zone Campaign, that we called Fair Development. 

    Winston Gupton who worked at ESPNZone for 7 and ½ years, would later describe hearing the news and what it did to him: “I went into work on it must have been the 8th of June. I get there early in the morning. There is a chef on the back dock and the first thing he says is ‘Can I speak to you for a moment?’ And he says ‘They are going to be closing down in a week’. I just couldn’t believe that this was going to happen. It is almost like someone comes up and robs you at gun point and takes everything from you. We were dedicated. I was anyway. Dedicated to my job, to my position with Disney. Unfortunately, they weren’t that dedicated to their employees. I have always worked but today… it’s been since June and this is February almost March. I haven’t worked since. You want to get back to work. You know you are good for something. You know you are better than what you are, the position that you are in but you really can’t do anything about it. I have to sit on my hands everyday in order to keep myself from going crazy I just sit there and I weep until I start to feel better. And I got myself together and I go on out and meet the school bus get my daughter off the school bus that reminds me that my day is a little better.”

    Continue reading on our Blog...

  • United Workers History- Part V

    Human Rights Zone Campaign at the Inner Harbor: Part 2

    Written By: Todd Cherkis, United Workers’ Organizer

    A Pedagogy of Reflective Action – How do we get Clear about Capacity?

    The legendary Chinese General, military strategist, writer and philosopher Sun Tzu famously wrote of the necessity for both knowledge of your opponent and knowledge of yourself: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” We were learning through the organizing that the Inner Harbor opponents were managing systemic abuses from wage theft, failing to pay minimum wage, health and safety issues, no control over schedules, and more. We were learning through our research that the Inner Harbor represented entrenched power heavily invested by our public resources. And through our campaign we experienced this power organized to marginalize and keep hidden these issues we were raising.

    By years 3 and 4 of the campaign (2011 and 2012) we were concluding that we didn’t have the capacity to create the necessary leverage to achieve the change we had sought. The workplace organizing produced the same numbers of active members, the same members we classified as emerging leaders. We were not able to build a greater force that could expand exponentially each year. We had an amazing committed core but we could not grow beyond it. This was the result of too many workplaces, unpredictable schedules that hindered our ability to build relationships through home visits or group meetings and employer intimidation that further eroded the possibility of building relationships or waging a public fight.

     Ironically one of our successes at the Inner Harbor – forming the core group of leaders itself revealed that we didn’t have the capacity to fully exploit the contradictions the Inner Harbor represented.The core group emerged from a workplace struggle when ESPNZone shutdown without giving workers notice in June 2010. It was the first ESPNZone in the country, opened 12 years earlier by Disney, its parent company. The restaurant and sports bar anchored the Power Plant, developed by the Cordish Company. 

     

    ESPNZone

    As we entered the second full year of the Human Rights Zone Campaign, we got the news that ESPNZone was shutting down in less than a week. We quickly responded by sending our summer organizers team down to the restaurant to hear if this was true. We hurriedly shared our contact info with every worker in an ESPNZone uniform and gathered phone numbers. We said we will hold a meeting to better understand the situation and think together about potential redress. Thinking to ourselves… “Is this legal? Can an employer just shut down without notice like this?” 

    We contacted Peter Sabonis, at Maryland Legal AID. Sabonis and an intern XXX researched relevant laws and found that a potentially strong case could be made that ESPNZone and its parent company Disney violated the Federal WARN Act which stipulates that companies of a certain size had to give workers notice before closing. ESPN Zone employed enough people to come under the Federal law. 

    Twenty-five or so workers crammed into a Legal Aid meeting room. Workers who attended were risking whatever remaining wages they were owed. ESPNZone had threatened they would lose out if they spoke to anyone about the closing including talking to the media. We listened as workers including Emanuel McCray, Leonard Gray, Winston Gupton, Janice Watkins and Keith Brown told their experiences of finding out the news. From that first meeting this group would form the backbone of the fight against ESPNZone and to lift up the tenets of the Human Rights Zone Campaign, that we called Fair Development. 

    Winston Gupton who worked at ESPNZone for 7 and ½ years, would later describe hearing the news and what it did to him: “I went into work on it must have been the 8th of June. I get there early in the morning. There is a chef on the back dock and the first thing he says is ‘Can I speak to you for a moment?’ And he says ‘They are going to be closing down in a week’. I just couldn’t believe that this was going to happen. It is almost like someone comes up and robs you at gun point and takes everything from you. We were dedicated. I was anyway. Dedicated to my job, to my position with Disney. Unfortunately, they weren’t that dedicated to their employees. I have always worked but today… it’s been since June and this is February almost March. I haven’t worked since. You want to get back to work. You know you are good for something. You know you are better than what you are, the position that you are in but you really can’t do anything about it. I have to sit on my hands everyday in order to keep myself from going crazy I just sit there and I weep until I start to feel better. And I got myself together and I go on out and meet the school bus get my daughter off the school bus that reminds me that my day is a little better.”

    Check out his powerful testimony here.

    Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote of the Inner Harbor Human Rights Zone Campaign and the ESPNZone struggle: “When a chain abruptly shuts its doors, like ESPN Zone did, the UW wants to be treated like workers and not disposable equipment. As Debra Harris, a former ESPN Zone cook said, “We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect."

    When we asked if the group wanted to do something about the shutdown and would they be willing to hold a press conference at ESPNZone there was no hesitation. Emmanuel McCray appealed to the group and what he saw as the central issue - the lack of respect his employer had shown everyone. Like at Camden Yards where discussions surfaced more anger at the lack of respect and dignity than issues like higher wages, ESPNZone workers were mostly furious that management had not been more upfront and honest. 

    Reverend Roger Powers of Light Street Presbyterian Church stepped up to the microphone among a crowd of ESPN Zone and other Inner Harbor workers in front of the ESPNZone, opening the press conference with a prayer: “I’m here today to stand in solidarity with the workers who lost their jobs with the closing of ESPN Zone. I support their cry for justice and dignity. I support their appeal for the respect of human rights. It was certainly immoral for ESPNZone to close without giving its employees adequate notice so that they would have time to look for other jobs. It may even have been illegal a violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act passed by congress in 1988. Immoral or illegal either way it wasn’t right. These workers deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. But instead when they were no longer needed by ESPN Zone they were tossed out as though they were disposable. Workers are human beings. They are people. They are not disposable. They are children of God. The management of ESPN Zone forgot the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You can bet that ESPN Zone executives would want to know ahead of time if they were about to be terminated. The cooks, waiters, and dishwashers that worked here deserved the same courtesy”. 

    At that moment a Power Plant security guard approached Rev. Powers, interrupting “sir.. this is private property”

     

    Rev. Powers: “I’m in the middle of a press conference”. 

     

    The security guard responded: “I understand”. He then tried to grab the microphone. Rev. Powers continued with his prayer, moving his body away from the guard’s outreached hand: “Whatever money ESPN Zone made over the years was the result of the hard work of its employees. [Rev. Powers’ voice rising above the guards pleas of of “sir”] Their employees deserved better particularly in this economy. So it is my hope and prayer that in the next week there will be a face to face meeting between ESPN Zone executives and workers and that a fair and equitable settlement will be agreed upon [more shouts from the security guard]. I would like you to join your hearts and minds with me in prayer… [head bowed down] Gracious and loving God we call you by many names Holy One, Elohim, Allah, Creator, Christ, Spirit but by whatever name we know you to be a God of justice and mercy. You are a God of love and peace who seeks wholeness and health. Prosperity and security for the whole human family for all of your children. We pray for all the workers who lost their jobs as ESPN Zone. Help them to find new jobs quickly so that they can support themselves and their families. Watch over them at this difficult time. Hear their cries Oh God for justice for dignity for human rights we ask you to give them strength and courage”.

     

    The security guard stepped back up to Rev. Powers, attempting to block the television news camera views, cell phone held up to his ear: “Sir you are not allowed to be here”.

     

    Rev. Powers unphased continued: “To speak truth to power as they demand what is there right.”

     

    Security guard: “Sir you are not allowed to be here. You are on private property”. 

     

    Rev. Powers: “We pray for the executives that made the decision to close this ESPN Zone without giving fair notice to their employees. Stir their consciousness oh God. Instill in them a sense of justice and fairness. Help them to see the error of their ways. Bring them to the table to meet with these workers face to face.”

     

    Security guard, cell phone still held to his ear: “this is private property”. 

     

    “Open their hearts and minds. Make them receptive to the workers’ appeal. Move them to do the right thing and give these workers’ their do. We prayer to you Oh God in the confidence that you hear and answer our prayer, may it be so. Amen.”



    At that moment with a full tableau of reporters and cameras Peter Sabonis stepped forward and asked the security guard “are you acting on behalf of David Cordish”. The guard with phone still at his ear turned and walked away. This guard later told us that he had been on the phone with David Cordish who was watching from somewhere in the Power Plant building, and giving instructions to shut it down. With the security guard backed off and assuming the police would soon arrive, we continued. 

    Leonard Gray, a cook, shared: “We are the backbone of the Inner Harbor. Without us there wouldn’t be an Inner Harbor. We should be treated as human beings and get the respect that we deserve.”. This wasn’t the first time a restaurant decided to shutdown suddenly at the Inner Harbor. Gray had worked at another Power Plant restaurant that also shutdown without giving notice to workers; and called out Planet Hollywood for taking similar action against their workers when it closed at the Inner Harbor. Gray called this a “pattern of poverty zone development”, calling on “Cordish and GGP to enter into a Fair Development Agreement to ensure living wages, healthcare, education, respect, and dignity for all low wage workers at the Inner Harbor”. Gray demanded also demanded “ESPNZone to meet face to face with workers within seven days”. 

    Workers from ESPN Zone as well as from throughout the Inner Harbor would lead multiple public actions after the initial press conference to keep public pressure on Disney and ESPN Zone to resolve the WARN Act violations. Maryland Legal AID turned over the case to attorney Andrew Friedman of Brown, Goldstein and Levy who filed the class action lawsuit in October. A little over two years later in January 2013 U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake ruled in our favor. Commenting to the Baltimore Sun Friedman said, “"We are very pleased by Judge Blake's opinion, which we think is thorough and thoughtful and does a real service to these employees and employees all over the country," he said. "Our one disappointment is that it has taken two and a half years to get here."

    United Workers’ leader Emanuel McCray told the Baltimore Brew: “I hope that this important federal court ruling will spur a renewed energy to rethink development in Baltimore so that our public resources are used to ensure work with dignity”.  

    The strength of the ESPN Zone organizing, the depth and determination of the leaders of this fight showed that this wasn’t simply about a court case or single grievance. They immediately made the connections between the ESPN Zone shutdown and a larger pattern of “Poverty Zone Development”. They stood with workers form Cheesecake Factory and M and S Grill and Five Guys connecting other abuses such as wage theft and sexual harassment to an unaccountable development regime. Many of these leaders have gone on to be elected to our decision-making board called the Leadership Council. Emanuel McCray helped rally and fight a six year successful campaign to pass statewide legislation to ensure workers can earn paid sick leave all while battling cancer. 

    However, the big breakthrough in the organizing of ESPN Zone workers did not translate to other restaurants at the Inner Harbor. 

    What made the ESPN Zone struggle different from the larger Human Rights Zone campaign were clear to our organizing team: ESPN Zone had acted with impunity against all the workers providing a unifying issue, and with everyone out of work, they had the time necessary to take on this fight, once they got over ESPN Zone’s threats of losing remaining wages if they spoke out. In the years prior to the shutdown, ESPN Zone workers sided with the Human Rights Zone Campaign however few had become active do to exhaustive schedules, second jobs, and other commitments. 

    ESPN Zone breakthrough proved the exception to our organizing strategy. We knew this because we had stuck to a campaign plan, dedicating 4 organizers to Inner Harbor outreach for each summer’s tourist season. Each season we tracked the number of contacts made at the Inner Harbor through talking to workers coming to work or leaving at the end of their shift; we logged each attempt at a home visit (ranging from the most common – “Not Home” to the prized successful visits where we noted a workers’ enthusiasm for the campaign); and we recorded attendance at meetings, rallies, and internal United Workers events like membership elections to our Leadership Council, the decision making body of the organization. We were not only documenting over 700 relationships with workers each tourist season, we were measuring our capacity – what we were capable of creating. Each year we evaluated progress – less than two years into the campaign when ESPN Zone shut down we were already beginning to see the signs that our limited capacity was not enough to rally 13 restaurants against the Inner Harbor developers. We were learning that we could reach between 700-800 workers each summer and have successful home visits with about 10% of that group – meaning visits that established a relationship and the potential for deeper action by workers. We evaluated progress week by week with our team of summer organizers. 

    We used our limited capacity without distractions, allowing us to learn what we were capable of within the human rights zone campaign we had designed. Going back to Sun Tzu’s proverb – part of our pedagogy was to learn about ourselves just like we were learning about our opponents. We learned that with the exception of the ESPN Zone case that we lacked the capacity to build the relationships with workers necessary to exert leverage over workplaces. Our experiences either attempting to create a dialogue with developers through a city council resolution as well as our deep research and published report were revealing that our opponents at the Inner Harbor had strengths we were not yet prepared to overtake. 

    This knowledge gained through the discipline of having a plan for the campaign, following through on our plans, and through myriad reflective spaces led us in three directions: one towards expanding capacity internally through a reorganization towards human rights committees in neighborhoods, schools and faith communities; towards campaigns that are democratized through deep collaboration across organizations, and another in which we expanded our Fair Development framework going beyond work with dignity to include housing and environmental justice. 

  • United Workers History - Part IV

    Human Rights Zone Campaign at the Inner Harbor: Part 1

    Written By: Todd Cherkis, United Workers' Organizer

    When United Workers first began we focused on having meetings at shelters in order to talk to workers – we tried a couple of different spaces starting with the lobby of 300 Cathedral St. where Homeless Persons Representation Project had its office. But then workers had to make a choice –  getting a guaranteed shelter bed by showing up on time or risk not getting into the shelter by coming to our early evening meeting. So we negotiated with the Eutaw Street Shelter, an old abandoned fire station, that on Thursday nights our members, if they signed up at the Oasis drop-in center in the morning, would be guaranteed a bed. They were willing to reserve between 10-20 beds one night a week for members. From this agreement we were able to establish a regular meeting for workshops and strategic discussions. We were also able to have our ”classroom” held upstairs at the fire station, away from the very loud TV in the main common area, minimizing distractions and keeping the focus on the discussions. 

    Once this routine was established, outreach efforts fanned out to other shelters, the drop in center where you were assigned a chair and of course the day labor agencies themselves. We would go early in the morning (around 5 AM) or in mid-afternoon starting around 4pm to talk to returning workers. My experience in Atlanta with outreach at day labor agencies was that it was challenging – we generally had to get as close as possible to the temp agency doors; this meant being on private property if possible. The managers were unpredictable in that sometimes they didn’t bother us and other times they would come outside and make a big show of how little they thought of unions or the prospect of workers having a say about wages or working conditions. In the parlance of labor union organizing we went “public” immediately. Managers in Baltimore were much more agitated by our presence. The manager at a temp agency called Tops on Howard Street, a main downtown thoroughfare, chased me down the street with a baseball bat, hitting light poles and mail boxes in full view of  rush hour traffic. The manager kept yelling “you want to talk about baseball?!”  At Just Temps a manager assaulted one of our members pushing him into oncoming traffic on Russell Street – the main road to I-95. The same manager would randomly appear with a disposable camera taking pictures of us talking to workers. Suffice it to say that this made conversations with workers compromised. Workers worried about being seen talking with organizers. And at any moment conversations could be disrupted by a day labor manager’s angry outburst or act of violence. 

    When we began the Camden Yards campaign we started to focus on the hundreds of workers who simply came to the stadium and waited for work outside of Gate F. Some were sent down by van ride from Labor Ready but a large contingent waited in line to sign up on “Fernando’s clipboard” for the night’s work. Fernando acknowledged our presence but didn’t seem to care. And we wound up with a captive audience of bored workers waiting for the game to end. If the game went into extra innings we had even more time to talk with workers, document abuses, and share information about United Workers. We even brought a camcorder and filmed workers as they told us their stories. 

    After the first baseball season of the Living Wages Campaign at Camden Yards we took advantage of the change in cleaning contractors. The Maryland Stadium Authority decided to award Knight FM – a multi-national labor sourcing company based in Saginaw Michigan the contract. We met with them before they had an office set up in Baltimore. They had heard about our campaign and complaints. They understood that the reason they won out over Aramark was because of the public campaign we began and the abuses we brought to light. These abuses had included sexual harassment by an Aramark staffer. A woman worker from Labor Ready complained to us that the Aramark worker had exposed his genitals to her. When we met with the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Aramark representatives couldn’t deny that this had happened. Knight FM was ready to work with us and attempted to cultivate a different image, one of Midwestern good-natured care and concern for workers’ well-being. We met with Knight FM and asked them to sign a Code of Conduct that essentially did two things: created a public record that they would abide by all relevant labor laws include minimum wage, sexual harassment and race and gender-based discrimination. And as importantly the Code of Conduct recognized United Workers as a legitimate representative of the workers, empowered to grieve Code of Conduct complaints. 

    This negotiation with Knight FM was a moment of strategic sleight of hand – we knew they underestimated us, or were at least confused – we were not a labor union nor were we a charity. We also knew that they would see themselves as a different type of company, above the amoral world of day labor agencies who seemed to prey on people’s misfortune. They didn’t know we were desperate to carve out a more credible space for discussions with workers, credibility that a signed Code of Conduct would confer. We assured Knight FM that it would be preferred by all parties that rather than have public protests and get in the news media it would be beneficial to simply work directly with Knight FM to resolve grievances. We explained that the blame for the cheap contract with the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Baltimore Orioles rested with Peter Angelos, the Orioles Owner who had broken his living wage promise. 

    Knight FM signed the Code of Conduct. 

    We then went to each day labor agency they hired and got them to sign using a similar approach – we explained that we understood they were better than the old agencies, while pitting them against Peter Angelos and his broken promise. They all signed. This meant that instead of standing on a sidewalk 50 yards from the temp agency door hoping to catch workers coming or going and on guard for a manager’s protests or worse… we walked right in the front door and sat down among the rows of workers waiting to have their name called. We brazenly held meetings inside the day labor hiring halls who had contracts with Knight FM for the stadium cleaning work. Every worker got their own copy of the Code of Conduct. We started hearing grievances. 

    When we started talking to workers at the Inner Harbor it felt much more like those earlier times when day labor managers did their best to intimidate and disrupt workers talking with us. And we would soon learn that the restaurants including Baltimore’s own Philips Seafood and the national chains such as Cheesecake Factory, HardRock Café and Five Guys were less inclined to underestimate us. At Camden Yards those Code of Conduct agreements represented both a hedge against United Workers’ public protest and a signal to us that they underestimated our organization and workers’ agency. After winning that campaign in 2007 and enforcing this victory in 2008 by winning a union fight we didn’t have the luxury of being underestimated. Once Phillips saw organizers talking to their workers we were told they held an employee “captive audience” meeting where they threatened to shut down if workers’ unionized. At Cheesecake Factory they pitted one group of immigrants against another group who happened to be from a rival town in Guatemala. At Five Guys they clocked workers out and then made them work cleaning the restaurant unpaid. 

    At Camden Yards we not only had succeeded at claiming organizing space at the day labor agencies and at Camden Yards, we were also able to do home visits to workers. Despite homelessness many workers lived with family members or “couch surfed” or endured evictions every couple of months or negotiated with slumlords to keep on having a roof over one’s head. If the Orioles were not playing in Baltimore most of the stadium cleaners would be home. Our visits to hundreds of members were structured like one-on-one workshop sessions created to uncover abuses, deepen workers’ understanding of the labor supply chain to which they were at the bottom, which meant they were the most exploited and the most links in the chain. We would invite participation in our  next meeting, event, or action. We spent a lot of time tracking down members who invariably moved or had to change phone numbers. We home visited members literally in the middle of having their belongings put out on the sidewalk. And yet these visits despite how transitory people were, the visits became a definitive way workers joined and became members, participating and growing our capacity to engage the campaign. 

    We discovered at the Inner Harbor that not only was the point of entry extremely challenging we would also learn that doing home visits was very difficult. The low wage service workers at the Inner Harbor had no control over when they worked and many held multiple jobs cobbling together several part-time gigs to make ends meet. This made reconnecting with workers once we got their contact information very difficult, much less finding regular times for groups of workers to all meet at once. 

    While we had more staff organizers than during the Camden Yards Campaign the size and challenges of the Inner Harbor were too much. For four years we had a team of 4 organizers (at Camden Yards it was 1) conduct outreach and home visits to workers. Every year we were able to connect with over 700 workers getting their address and phone number. And by the end of the peak tourist season May-August) we had engaged beyond one home visit, maybe 70 workers. Certainly not enough to think we had leverage over the policies and practices of a dozen restaurants and two major international developers. 

    The Battle of Ideas - Reframing the Inner Harbor 

    The experience of the Inner Harbor created a profound and humbling sense of not knowing all the answers. We had been wrong about our power assessment, our understanding of our capacity and this led to a painful loss. This lesson has pushed our pedagogy to value challenging assumptions and to attempt to go beyond sentimentality about the plight of the poor. 

    As one of our mentors, Willie Baptist, reminds us “it is not enough to be angry”. 

    We had chosen to extend and expand our organizing from Camden Yards to the Inner Harbor because the working conditions were so similar – low wage service jobs, mostly for the tourist season which nearly matched the baseball season and what we thought of as a big brand – the brand of the Inner Harbor – another iconographic symbol of Baltimore like Camden Yards. This choice came after a year of research and winning a union contract at Camden Yards in the Summer of 2008. The research was conducted by staff, members and Poverty Scholars in our New Organizers Program. However, this research largely focused on working conditions. We didn’t fully understand the entrenched power represented at the waterfront.

    Instead we researched the campaign as we were waging it. From 2008 until 2011 we studied  the Inner Harbor, the developers who leased or owned the properties, particularly the Cordish Company which leased the Power Plant from the city and General Growth Properties (GGP) – a large real estate company that owned malls around the country and had purchased the two waterfront shopping pavilions from the Rouse Corporation in 2004.

    Our research was done by a mix of workers, volunteers, and staff spearheaded by Robin Bingham in partnership with the National Economic Social Rights Initiative. We spent months pouring over economic development reports, learning the ins and outs of various tax subsidies at the city, state and federal level. The Inner Harbor was a source of great interest from Baltimore City leadership and its development arm - the Baltimore Development Corporation. However, despite the stacks of studies, newspaper articles and reports very little mention was given to the workers at the Inner Harbor or the working conditions they endured. Our Hidden In Plain Sight report published in 2011 attempted to fill in the gaps and hold accountable political leadership. We detailed the history of Baltimore development, the broken promises on which the Inner Harbor was built (to replace lost manufacturing jobs) and the huge subsidies that have gone into this project (estimated at over $1 Billion). 

     

     

    Hidden in Plan Sight Release

    Internally, discussions about the research and its implications pondered whether or not city leadership knew that the Inner Harbor was possibly a net money loser and that it represented a dying development model based on the whims of tourists and convention goers rather than more sustainable support. Our days and nights of outreach confirmed that once the tourism season was over after Labor Day  the mall and its shops were mostly empty. Workers reported having their hours cut and having to go on unemployment or find other jobs. And yet the city and the Baltimore Development Corporation kept putting money towards the development. While GGP was an out-of-state conglomerate seemingly hobbled by the 2008 real estate crash, the Cordish Co. was very much a product of Baltimore and represented entrenched political power. Its campaign contributions reflected its power and brazenness. The Baltimore Brew reported in 2011 that Cordish contributed to then Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s campaign at the same time lobbying the city to reduce its rental payments for its Power Plant properties. 

    The Brew reported: “A partnership controlled by heavyweight developer David S. Cordish contributed $4,000 to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s reelection committee a month before he first approached the city to try to reduce the rent on his Power Plant complex in the Inner Harbor. This campaign check – plus an earlier donation by his wife, Susan Cordish – brings to $21,000 the contributions identified so far as coming from Cordish-controlled companies to the mayor, who has final say on whether to grant the company $3 million in rent relief. The Brew revealed Tuesday that Cordish gave $16,000 to the mayor’s campaign committee through a cluster of corporate entities not readily identified with the developer. Cordish is building a large slots casino at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover and is expected to bid on the city’s planned casino south of M&T Bank Stadium. Lower-level staff at the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC) first reviewed Cordish’s rent-abatement proposal in February, according to agency minutes. By early May, when Cordish made the bulk of his political contributions, the BDC board had heard his pitch for rent relief and the idea was under discussion by BDC president M.J. “Jay” Brodie and deputy mayor Kaliope Parthemos. Public disclosure of the rent-reduction plan was first reported by this website in June, when the proposal was sent to Rawlings-Blake. Today, the mayor said she still has not reviewed the Cordish proposal. She defended the contributions – criticized by two of her opponents – as fully within Maryland election laws”.

    Later Cordish would leverage the most expensive ballot initiative in state history that decided to permit casinos around the state to get further tax breaks from state legislators so that he would not spend his cash opposing the measure

    We were learning through struggle and engagement with our opponents just how entrenched their power had become. We considered the Inner Harbor as much if not more a political struggle than a labor issue. Our campaign’s big picture question: How could political leaders continue to justify public investment in the Inner Harbor developments while workers’ struggled with mere seasonal employment and substandard working conditions? Soon after we released Hidden in Plain Sight in 2011 we worked with city council member Mary Pat Clarke who had been City Council President during the successful campaign to win passage of the first in the nation city living wage ordinance in the 1990s. We drafted a non-binding resolution that affirmed the findings of the Hidden in Plain Sight Report and called on public agencies and the Baltimore Development Corporation to account for the lack of dignified working conditions. The heart of the resolution stated:

    “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE, that the Council calls on representative from the Departments of Finance, Housing and Community Development, and from the Baltimore Development Corporation to appear before it to explain the City’s current policies for ensuring that public subsidies provided to private developers result in economic activity that produces jobs that pay living wages and promote worker dignity, the City’s current policies for encouraging public participation and private accountability in such city-subsidized economic development decisions, and to provide recommendations to the Council to guarantee such outcomes in the future.”

     

    We were attempting to get Baltimore’s legislative body to call on public agencies and the quasi public Baltimore Development Corporation to testify about its mission and its ability to deliver for the residents of Baltimore. Public Agencies come before the council all the time as does the Baltimore Development Corporation. Nothing about this request is terribly out of the norm. The city talks about creating good jobs and promotes its policies as good for economic health so discussing the Inner Harbor working conditions and what it is doing to ensure public subsidies create the types of good jobs it promotes seems almost routine. 

     

    But here is where we dared to disrupt the patronage system, the resolution goes on to advocate for positioning human needs as the first priority of publicly subsidized economic development polices and projects; calls for those projects to provide living wages; and resolves to ensure workers directly impacted participate in a meaningful way in decision making:  

     

    AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the improvement of the standards of living of the citizens of Baltimore be regarded as the principal objective in the planning of economic development.

     

    AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that workers who are eventually employed in Baltimore as a result of publicly subsidized economic development, should receive fair and living wages, health care benefits, opportunities for skill enhancement, and be afforded respect and dignity at the workplace.

     

    AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that all Baltimore citizens have the right to active, free and meaningful participation in the decisions regarding public economic development subsidies and to the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.”

     

    We knew from our research that these three demands were breaking with Baltimore’s political and economic beliefs and practices in trickle-down economics that essentially have stolen workers’ wages (profits) to subsidize wealth building for the very rich (waterfront shopping malls and market rate housing). The Baltimore Development Corporation has opposed raises to the minimum wage, or mandating living wages for certain large big box retailers. They have also shut out the press during their deliberations in violation of the open meetings requirements much less acquiesce to workers’ demands for meaningful participation in decision making. 

    Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke submitted the resolution. It garnered several co-sponsors. A hearing date was scheduled. Then at the city council weekly lunch the resolution was quietly stopped by Councilman Bill Cole who represented the 11th district which included the Inner Harbor and other downtown development interests. Cole used council tradition to protest the resolution claiming that Councilwoman Clarke violated the unspoken rule of attempting to legislate in someone else’s district. He did not support the resolution. The hearing was canceled and the resolution died. Three years later Councilman Bill Cole was selected to become the President and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation. 

    The Inner Harbor was Baltimore’s greatest example of machine politics – a patronage system that had robbed communities of wealth and opportunity so that Cordish and other members of the donor-class could enrich themselves. The Human Rights Zone Campaign at the Inner Harbor gave us an up-close experience of this entrenched power. In a campaign the first step is defining the problem and then you can move to the solution phase based on this definition. At Camden Yards nobody denied the abuses taking place, most of the campaign energy went towards building the credibility of the workers to represent themselves and to hold accountable a labor supply chain which through outsourcing was meant to facilitate denial of rights. At the Inner Harbor we struggled to achieve the first phase of defining the problem. Organizations like the Baltimore Development Corporation never met with workers or made public comments about our claims. Our first forays at engaging the city council further illustrated how stymied we were. 

     


     1. Baltimore Brew August 31, 2011 by Mark Reutter titled: “Update: Cordish contributions to Rawlings-Blake reach $21,000: https://baltimorebrew.com/2011/08/31/update-cordish-contributions-to-rawlings-blake-reach-21000/

     2. Michael Dresser, “Gambling Expansion Wins Narrow Victory”, Baltimore Sun, November 7, 2012.