Blog

United Workers History- Part III

Camden Yards Victory

Written by: Todd Cherkis, Leadership Organizer

You could have the greatest individual talents — a team full of Kobe, Jordan, LeBron and Curry and still fall short. An injury, an ego, a mismatch of strengths that work to highlight great weaknesses all can lead to disappointing losses. During this period (2002-2004) we were identifying and developing leaders through exchanges with other organizations including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union as well as others within a network of poor people’s organizations with roots in the National Union of the Homeless organizing of the 1980s and 1990s. We also facilitated discussions at our weekly meeting at the Eutaw Street homeless shelters. We concerned ourselves with the systemic causes of poverty, examining the powerful alignment of forces that led to an invisible day labor system employing homeless people below even a minimum wage of $4/hr. Day laborers were working at some of the biggest corporations, construction projects and internationally recognized sports stadiums. We experienced dozens of abuses from being charged for rides to job sites to gender-based discrimination in hiring, to unsafe working conditions. What were we up against and how might we come together not for charity or temporary relief but for economic justice? 

 

We saw other organizations gravitate towards conflating building power with getting in the news media. For every political crisis or headline one could react – quickly assemble for a protest, or a press conference. Get outraged. Mobilize. Protest. Repeat. However this seemed a way to exhaust yourself, give up this reflective strategic space. Give it over to whatever the powerful were debating in the media. Was this how to build a movement, or use what little capacity we had? 

 

There are so many battles – cuts to social programs, a new policy being drafted to erect new barriers for housing vouchers, day labor agencies that pay below minimum wage or don’t provide even a bathroom for workers, or that shelter manager who was nasty to a member. It can feel like a sea of crisis, overwhelming, paralysis inducing. 

 

Our discussions at our weekly evening meeting kept us grounded, kept us from leaping from one thing to the next. Instead reflections allowed members to “step back” so as to get a better view. We decided to focus on one campaign targeting the roots of the day labor system – the corporations who bought our labor on the cheap from the day labor agencies. 

 

We started by interviewing our peers about conditions, and where they were sent each day to work. These interviews were summarized in a report “Our Stolen Sweat” and featured the Camden Yards baseball stadium and working conditions there. We were introducing the idea that the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority were responsible for deplorable working conditions – workers paid as low as $3/hr, made to eat lunch in the supply closet out of view of fans, hired based on race and gender. 

 

We focused all of our energies on the hundreds of day laborers who cleaned Camden Yards. We demanded a living wage from Peter Angelos, the Orioles Owner and the Maryland Stadium Authority that hired Aramark who then hired day labor agencies who then hired the workers. We read up on Peter Angelos – his history of winning asbestos cases on behalf of steelworkers, we saw he was named most powerful Baltimorean by Baltimore Magazine. And we wondered what a group of homeless workers could do to win a living wage or even get his attention. There were doubts. Some thought it was too big an opponent. Yet we had seen the CIW take on big fast food brands, rally consumers, and succeed at building a movement. We could do this in Baltimore. We read Naomi Klein’s No Logo chapter on the brand “boomerang” where activists used the glow and attention brands created through multi-million dollar ad campaigns – turning this brand attention on itself by exposing workers’ abuses at Nike for instance – getting added attention from consumers. Camden Yards and the Orioles – everyone in town knew about the team and the stadium and cared deeply about the franchise. What if the public knew that behind the games were homeless day laborers underpaid and experiencing some of the worst rights abuses in the country? Would this reality smudge up the glorious images we all had of the Orioles? Would the media, public and politicians feel compelled to do something about it? 

 

Our group sitting in metal folding chairs, looking up at butcher paper taped to an empty wall included notes on strengths and weaknesses – a hypothesis for building power – strength “our story” – weakness “lots of day laborers …we can’t strike”; strength “Orioles have an image to protect” – weakness “stereotypes – people don’t have a high opinion of the homeless” “Peter Angelos can ignore us”. Strength “lots of workers at the stadium… everyone has worked there it seems”. 

 

We decided to try this out and publicly launch our first campaign — the Living Wages Campaign At Camden Yards. 

 

We also took several lessons from our studies and close work with the Poor Peoples’ Economic Human Rights Campaign’s educational structure – the University of the Poor and the CIW. We learned through discussions with the leaders of these campaigns that you build on assessed strengths and weaknesses of your side and your opponent’s side. This political and economic assessment was critical to determining how you were going to build power. 

 

Just as profound – we saw that groups created campaigns that were meant to grow over time. The campaigns created new networks and relationships: students, faith, labor, civic as well as online through email listservs and updates; a website that documented the campaign and informed the public on how to get involved. We also saw by being up close to the CIW’s Fair Food Campaign that these fights were planned, they were battles of stories with members and leaders being authors carefully crafting the next chapters – escalating tension, introducing new alliances and new ways to tell the story (new perspectives as well as different media from songs to videos to street theater performance). Our leaders had traveled with the CIW’s Fair Food campaign and saw this battle of stories first hand - even participating on their media team, making short videos that were posted on their website as part of daily reports from national protest marches. 

 

Mainly we understood that strategy meant study and making a plan. 

 

So we started making strategic plans. We drafted our story and learned that if we could take control of the timeline as best we could we would maximize our resources. When we did things was as important as how we did things or why. 

 

Our strategic plans revolved around a peak organizing period – the baseball season. We wanted media attention so we planned protests when the media would be most available – in the Spring before students’ summer break and then after Labor Day. During the summer months we would focus all our efforts on organizing workers. To develop new members we developed what we called “Unity Actions” and we held a weekend getaway retreat called the “Staying on Track Retreat”. 

Staying on Track Retreat, 2007

 

In 2004 our first Spring Action was on Opening Day – the time of the baseball season when everyone pays the most attention. The result of this opening day salvo was immediate ongoing talks with the Maryland Stadium Authority who managed the cleaning contract because the stadium was owned by the state. And in a more limited way talks began with Peter Angelos. In fact even before our first protest Angelos had reached out, having heard from labor unions about our planned opening day march from the shelter down Eutaw Street to the main entrance to Camden Yards. Unions had called Angelos apparently to warn him and to avoid being blamed for this seemingly surprise protest. It appeared that our strategy was already bearing fruit - Angelos didn’t want bad publicity on such an important day. So before we even put out a press release or finished our protest signs and banners we - this ragtag group had gotten the attention of Baltimore’s most powerful person. 

 

The dialogues with the Maryland Stadium Authority led to Aramark -the cleaning contractor losing its contract, workers got a raise to $7/hr. 

 

Peter Angelos spoke directly with our lawyer, Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) attorney Peter Sabonis, promising that he would pay the difference between $7 and a living wage to ensure the workers were paid fairly. Angelos would end up reneging on his promise… not having the decency to share this news until Opening Day the following season. In response we held our 2005 Spring action on union night when labor unions got discounted tickets. Our aim was to embarrass Peter Angelos for faking his support of workers and build support with union members. Workers held large images of Peter Angelos with the words “Labor Faker” written across or simply “Liar”. Attorneys at HPRP warned us that we might get sued. We thought to ourselves - that would be a good thing - a new chapter in our battle of stories - a real David vs. Goliath court drama. Angelos was too smart for that and we were not hit with a lawsuit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP6QhRoRHHU

 

After the ramp up actions of the Spring we would consolidate leaders at midsummer Staying on Track retreats. The first one was held in Washington, DC in 2006 and included a trip to the national mall and the Lincoln Memorial – a first for members. At this retreat we studied the Abolitionist movement and the leadership of Harriet Tubman. We introduced the concept that to create a movement requires sacrifice. Tubman had risked certain death to bring thousands to freedom. We needed to think about what sacrifices we were prepared to make in order to break free of the day labor system that was keeping us poor. Our first act of sacrifice was to stage an all night prayer vigil at Peter Angelos’s office on Charles Street. Workers would march, picket, pray, and sing together all evening, all night and in the morning we would lead a march to his office. Workers leaving the baseball game after work would join as well. 

 

A year later the Staying on Track Retreat was held at Frostburg State University tucked into the Appalachian mountains in western Maryland. Because we had introduced and reflected on this idea of sacrifice and carried out a more intense action the year prior we were able to discuss and decide to do something even more intense. We also were able to bring to the retreat a leader from the CIW who had himself participated in a hunger strike against Taco Bell in 2003. United Workers founder, Todd Cherkis, also participated in this hunger strike. We were able to “bring” these experiences into the retreat and reflect on sacrifice, solidarity, and the necessity of escalating the campaign. We decided to go on a hunger strike in front of Camden Yards. 15 workers and allies made the commitment at a special ceremony we performed at the end of the retreat. This ceremony was planned by leaders Carl Johnson, Luis Larin, and Tom Kertes, in their own way echoing the underground Freedom Churches of the Poor that developed as part of the Abolitionist movement. It was a powerful moment of recognition of how far we had all come as leaders to be able to respond to such a call - to put our bodies on the frontlines. At the ceremony members and supporters who would stand with hunger strikers received a black wrist band to wear. Those that would put their bodies at risk stepped forward and took a yellow wrist band. Each of us in these two concentric circles lit a candle as a memorial to those that have sacrificed and come before. The 15 hunger strikers who stood together represented this Muti-racial, bi-lingual, multi-gendered “new and unsettling” force, a continuation of struggle. 

 

Part of our strategic plan was to give the Maryland Stadium Authority a deadline we knew they wouldn’t meet. So for months we were telling them they had to give workers a living wage by Labor Day. Their failure would prompt and justify workers going on hunger strike. The Stadium Authority acted as predicted, putting us off earlier that summer saying “the living wage issue is a Fall issue we can discuss after the season” admitting they would miss our deadline. 

 

When we gathered back in Baltimore in early August after the retreat and announced the hunger strike at Camden Yards to widespread media coverage. We were playing to our strengths – committed leadership unafraid to tell our story. Within three weeks of ongoing press coverage we had largely planned through the preparation and hunger strike announcement - the Mayor and Governor publicly sided with our campaign and the Maryland Stadium Authority held an emergency board meeting. The Maryland Stadium Authority board voted to approve a living wage for stadium workers averting the spectacle of seeing starving workers at the city’s famous sports venue. 

 

Hunger Strike Announcement

 

Results

Winning this campaign was an extension of what we were learning and practicing all along – a pedagogy of reflective action whereas one of our mentors Willie Baptist of the Kairos Center would say “campaigns are classrooms”. We were learning, we could study, we could be scholars. We were learning we could strategize and plan and respond using our intelligence. We were learning we could make history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csYab5zJB-U

  • United Workers History- Part III

    Camden Yards Victory

    Written by: Todd Cherkis, Leadership Organizer

    You could have the greatest individual talents — a team full of Kobe, Jordan, LeBron and Curry and still fall short. An injury, an ego, a mismatch of strengths that work to highlight great weaknesses all can lead to disappointing losses. During this period (2002-2004) we were identifying and developing leaders through exchanges with other organizations including the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union as well as others within a network of poor people’s organizations with roots in the National Union of the Homeless organizing of the 1980s and 1990s. We also facilitated discussions at our weekly meeting at the Eutaw Street homeless shelters. We concerned ourselves with the systemic causes of poverty, examining the powerful alignment of forces that led to an invisible day labor system employing homeless people below even a minimum wage of $4/hr. Day laborers were working at some of the biggest corporations, construction projects and internationally recognized sports stadiums. We experienced dozens of abuses from being charged for rides to job sites to gender-based discrimination in hiring, to unsafe working conditions. What were we up against and how might we come together not for charity or temporary relief but for economic justice? 

     

    We saw other organizations gravitate towards conflating building power with getting in the news media. For every political crisis or headline one could react – quickly assemble for a protest, or a press conference. Get outraged. Mobilize. Protest. Repeat. However this seemed a way to exhaust yourself, give up this reflective strategic space. Give it over to whatever the powerful were debating in the media. Was this how to build a movement, or use what little capacity we had? 

     

    There are so many battles – cuts to social programs, a new policy being drafted to erect new barriers for housing vouchers, day labor agencies that pay below minimum wage or don’t provide even a bathroom for workers, or that shelter manager who was nasty to a member. It can feel like a sea of crisis, overwhelming, paralysis inducing. 

     

    Our discussions at our weekly evening meeting kept us grounded, kept us from leaping from one thing to the next. Instead reflections allowed members to “step back” so as to get a better view. We decided to focus on one campaign targeting the roots of the day labor system – the corporations who bought our labor on the cheap from the day labor agencies. 

     

    We started by interviewing our peers about conditions, and where they were sent each day to work. These interviews were summarized in a report “Our Stolen Sweat” and featured the Camden Yards baseball stadium and working conditions there. We were introducing the idea that the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority were responsible for deplorable working conditions – workers paid as low as $3/hr, made to eat lunch in the supply closet out of view of fans, hired based on race and gender. 

     

    We focused all of our energies on the hundreds of day laborers who cleaned Camden Yards. We demanded a living wage from Peter Angelos, the Orioles Owner and the Maryland Stadium Authority that hired Aramark who then hired day labor agencies who then hired the workers. We read up on Peter Angelos – his history of winning asbestos cases on behalf of steelworkers, we saw he was named most powerful Baltimorean by Baltimore Magazine. And we wondered what a group of homeless workers could do to win a living wage or even get his attention. There were doubts. Some thought it was too big an opponent. Yet we had seen the CIW take on big fast food brands, rally consumers, and succeed at building a movement. We could do this in Baltimore. We read Naomi Klein’s No Logo chapter on the brand “boomerang” where activists used the glow and attention brands created through multi-million dollar ad campaigns – turning this brand attention on itself by exposing workers’ abuses at Nike for instance – getting added attention from consumers. Camden Yards and the Orioles – everyone in town knew about the team and the stadium and cared deeply about the franchise. What if the public knew that behind the games were homeless day laborers underpaid and experiencing some of the worst rights abuses in the country? Would this reality smudge up the glorious images we all had of the Orioles? Would the media, public and politicians feel compelled to do something about it? 

     

    Our group sitting in metal folding chairs, looking up at butcher paper taped to an empty wall included notes on strengths and weaknesses – a hypothesis for building power – strength “our story” – weakness “lots of day laborers …we can’t strike”; strength “Orioles have an image to protect” – weakness “stereotypes – people don’t have a high opinion of the homeless” “Peter Angelos can ignore us”. Strength “lots of workers at the stadium… everyone has worked there it seems”. 

     

    We decided to try this out and publicly launch our first campaign — the Living Wages Campaign At Camden Yards. 

     

    We also took several lessons from our studies and close work with the Poor Peoples’ Economic Human Rights Campaign’s educational structure – the University of the Poor and the CIW. We learned through discussions with the leaders of these campaigns that you build on assessed strengths and weaknesses of your side and your opponent’s side. This political and economic assessment was critical to determining how you were going to build power. 

     

    Just as profound – we saw that groups created campaigns that were meant to grow over time. The campaigns created new networks and relationships: students, faith, labor, civic as well as online through email listservs and updates; a website that documented the campaign and informed the public on how to get involved. We also saw by being up close to the CIW’s Fair Food Campaign that these fights were planned, they were battles of stories with members and leaders being authors carefully crafting the next chapters – escalating tension, introducing new alliances and new ways to tell the story (new perspectives as well as different media from songs to videos to street theater performance). Our leaders had traveled with the CIW’s Fair Food campaign and saw this battle of stories first hand - even participating on their media team, making short videos that were posted on their website as part of daily reports from national protest marches. 

     

    Mainly we understood that strategy meant study and making a plan. 

     

    So we started making strategic plans. We drafted our story and learned that if we could take control of the timeline as best we could we would maximize our resources. When we did things was as important as how we did things or why. 

     

    Our strategic plans revolved around a peak organizing period – the baseball season. We wanted media attention so we planned protests when the media would be most available – in the Spring before students’ summer break and then after Labor Day. During the summer months we would focus all our efforts on organizing workers. To develop new members we developed what we called “Unity Actions” and we held a weekend getaway retreat called the “Staying on Track Retreat”. 

    Staying on Track Retreat, 2007

     

    In 2004 our first Spring Action was on Opening Day – the time of the baseball season when everyone pays the most attention. The result of this opening day salvo was immediate ongoing talks with the Maryland Stadium Authority who managed the cleaning contract because the stadium was owned by the state. And in a more limited way talks began with Peter Angelos. In fact even before our first protest Angelos had reached out, having heard from labor unions about our planned opening day march from the shelter down Eutaw Street to the main entrance to Camden Yards. Unions had called Angelos apparently to warn him and to avoid being blamed for this seemingly surprise protest. It appeared that our strategy was already bearing fruit - Angelos didn’t want bad publicity on such an important day. So before we even put out a press release or finished our protest signs and banners we - this ragtag group had gotten the attention of Baltimore’s most powerful person. 

     

    The dialogues with the Maryland Stadium Authority led to Aramark -the cleaning contractor losing its contract, workers got a raise to $7/hr. 

     

    Peter Angelos spoke directly with our lawyer, Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) attorney Peter Sabonis, promising that he would pay the difference between $7 and a living wage to ensure the workers were paid fairly. Angelos would end up reneging on his promise… not having the decency to share this news until Opening Day the following season. In response we held our 2005 Spring action on union night when labor unions got discounted tickets. Our aim was to embarrass Peter Angelos for faking his support of workers and build support with union members. Workers held large images of Peter Angelos with the words “Labor Faker” written across or simply “Liar”. Attorneys at HPRP warned us that we might get sued. We thought to ourselves - that would be a good thing - a new chapter in our battle of stories - a real David vs. Goliath court drama. Angelos was too smart for that and we were not hit with a lawsuit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP6QhRoRHHU

     

    After the ramp up actions of the Spring we would consolidate leaders at midsummer Staying on Track retreats. The first one was held in Washington, DC in 2006 and included a trip to the national mall and the Lincoln Memorial – a first for members. At this retreat we studied the Abolitionist movement and the leadership of Harriet Tubman. We introduced the concept that to create a movement requires sacrifice. Tubman had risked certain death to bring thousands to freedom. We needed to think about what sacrifices we were prepared to make in order to break free of the day labor system that was keeping us poor. Our first act of sacrifice was to stage an all night prayer vigil at Peter Angelos’s office on Charles Street. Workers would march, picket, pray, and sing together all evening, all night and in the morning we would lead a march to his office. Workers leaving the baseball game after work would join as well. 

     

    A year later the Staying on Track Retreat was held at Frostburg State University tucked into the Appalachian mountains in western Maryland. Because we had introduced and reflected on this idea of sacrifice and carried out a more intense action the year prior we were able to discuss and decide to do something even more intense. We also were able to bring to the retreat a leader from the CIW who had himself participated in a hunger strike against Taco Bell in 2003. United Workers founder, Todd Cherkis, also participated in this hunger strike. We were able to “bring” these experiences into the retreat and reflect on sacrifice, solidarity, and the necessity of escalating the campaign. We decided to go on a hunger strike in front of Camden Yards. 15 workers and allies made the commitment at a special ceremony we performed at the end of the retreat. This ceremony was planned by leaders Carl Johnson, Luis Larin, and Tom Kertes, in their own way echoing the underground Freedom Churches of the Poor that developed as part of the Abolitionist movement. It was a powerful moment of recognition of how far we had all come as leaders to be able to respond to such a call - to put our bodies on the frontlines. At the ceremony members and supporters who would stand with hunger strikers received a black wrist band to wear. Those that would put their bodies at risk stepped forward and took a yellow wrist band. Each of us in these two concentric circles lit a candle as a memorial to those that have sacrificed and come before. The 15 hunger strikers who stood together represented this Muti-racial, bi-lingual, multi-gendered “new and unsettling” force, a continuation of struggle. 

     

    Part of our strategic plan was to give the Maryland Stadium Authority a deadline we knew they wouldn’t meet. So for months we were telling them they had to give workers a living wage by Labor Day. Their failure would prompt and justify workers going on hunger strike. The Stadium Authority acted as predicted, putting us off earlier that summer saying “the living wage issue is a Fall issue we can discuss after the season” admitting they would miss our deadline. 

     

    When we gathered back in Baltimore in early August after the retreat and announced the hunger strike at Camden Yards to widespread media coverage. We were playing to our strengths – committed leadership unafraid to tell our story. Within three weeks of ongoing press coverage we had largely planned through the preparation and hunger strike announcement - the Mayor and Governor publicly sided with our campaign and the Maryland Stadium Authority held an emergency board meeting. The Maryland Stadium Authority board voted to approve a living wage for stadium workers averting the spectacle of seeing starving workers at the city’s famous sports venue. 

     

    Hunger Strike Announcement

     

    Results

    Winning this campaign was an extension of what we were learning and practicing all along – a pedagogy of reflective action whereas one of our mentors Willie Baptist of the Kairos Center would say “campaigns are classrooms”. We were learning, we could study, we could be scholars. We were learning we could strategize and plan and respond using our intelligence. We were learning we could make history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csYab5zJB-U

  • June 18th Reflection

    On the weekend of Juneteenth 2022, the Poor People's Campaign gathered for a Moral March and Assembly, in Washington, DC. People arrived on buses from around the country, many to share their testimonies of struggle and survival. On stage, the theomusicology team was in force with a full gospel band and choir, stirring the crowd of several thousand with songs from the movement.

    "There is power in our stories," said one testifier, asking the crowd to close their eyes and imagine, "What would America look like?"

    Another testifier talked of the shame they experienced growing up LGBTQ+ and how they wondered "if being myself was worth it? How can my existence be a threat?"

    Other testifiers talked about how "incarcerated lives matter too." How they made mistakes, but they are not a mistake, crying out, "I too am America."

    With the capital behind him, Bishop Reverend William Barber called for a Third Reconstruction Agenda, denouncing the politics of greed that leads to policy murder, calling it a moral crisis in America. "There comes a time," he proclaimed, "when we must have a moral meeting ... and we won't be silent or unseen or unheard anymore." He then spoke of building a fusion coalition of the rejected, the outsiders, of those at the bottom, to build a non-violent, moral army, announcing, "We are not an insurrection, but we are a resurrection."

    Those words, "not an insurrection, but a resurrection," inspired me. My name is Mike Hughes. It was during the COVID lockdowns and the mass demonstrations protesting the murder of George Floyd that I first became aware of the Poor People's Campaign. Watching a PPC rally on television, much like this year's event, was where I first became involved, texting the number to sign up. 
     
    I live in Western Maryland with my wife and I’m the proud parent of four children. My wife and I are both disabled. Though our disabilities are hidden, they affect every part of our lives. I have autism. And my wife has heart failure, along with auto-immune disorders which force her to live in chronic pain. I am able to work. My wife is not. Our experiences have made me see how fragile life can be, how we're only a couple of bad weeks from financial disaster. 
    Seeing the attack on our capital on television was one of the most traumatic events I've experienced as an American. "So it's come to this," I remember thinking. Since then, the efforts by red states to enact laws to suppress voting have intensified, trying to limit the vote to only the "real" Americans. Today's march, however, declared that ALL AMERICANS ARE REAL AMERICANS, that all voices deserve to be heard, again, like Rev. Barber said, "we won't be silent or unseen or unheard anymore."

    That message was reinforced by co-chair Reverend Liz Theo Harris when she said, "Hope comes from the bottom. We will transform this nation from the bottom up."

    Later, Bernice King, daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that poverty is violence, and that our nation doesn't suffer from a deficit of resources, but a deficit of will. Stating that poverty is not someone else's problem, that the least of these is becoming the most of these, and poverty will not stop at low-income workers. Poverty is a system that will continue to consume more and more people.

    Throughout the day, a blustery wind kept the participants cool, with several speakers commenting that the spirit was moving. While storm clouds threatened briefly to rain out the event, the wind prevailed and brushed away the clouds.

    The event ended with singing and with Rev. Barber calling for viewers to join the movement, then he offered an outline of the Poor People's Campaign's plans for non-violent direct action in the halls of Congress in September. As one speaker said, "This isn't the end, it's the beginning."
  • Rise Up!

    As a mass organization led by the poor, United Workers has been busy gearing up for the June 18th Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. June 18th is not just a march, it's a declaration of an ongoing moral movement coalesced by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The goals of this campaign are to unite and build the power of the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country, shift the political narrative, and make real policies to fully address poverty and low wealth from the bottom up. 

    Since the early days, United Workers has been a part of this national and statewide effort to reawaken Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. This revival of the Poor People’s campaign is not merely a reenactment, but a continuation of Dr. King’s strategic vision. We share the goals of this campaign. As Dr. King teaches us in the above quote, the poor must be the leaders of this movement to end poverty.  Only by taking action together can we, the poor and dispossessed, become the “new and unsettling force” that will transform our country.

    In this month’s e-alert, we’ll share some of the creative ways we’re demonstrating our leadership and mobilizing across our state towards June 18th.  We’ll share a video from a recent Art Build in Westminster hosted by the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign, a member’s reflection on being a mobilization captain for June 18th, spoken poetry by Damontae Taylor, a United Workers Youth Leader, and another installment of our United Workers' history series.

     


    Art Build 

    On May Day, a group of United Workers leaders traveled to Westminster to participate in the Maryland Poor People's Campaign Art Build to gear up for June 18th. Check out this short video from the event! 

     

    With June 18th less than a month away, our mobilizing captains have been working hard in organizing people to join in the Moral March on Washington. Here are reflections from two of United Workers leaders on why they decided to become  mobilization captains and why June 18th is so important.  

    “We decided to be mobilizing captains for June 18th because it is important to build unity and leadership of low income and poor people. We all need to come together so that we can demand better housing, an end to homelessness, better education, less crime, and equal rights for all. We must do our part in order to educate people and bring them out to the March on Washington.” -Jerry and Jackie Mayo, United Workers Leaders

     


    Leadership Day

    On April 16th, we held our annual Leadership Day for the first time in person since the pandemic. This year we focused on how we as an organization and as individual leaders can carry on the legacy of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in our current times. During our opening exercise participants were asked to read Dr. Kings quotes and create skits that reflect the message of his words. Click below to watch one of the groups perform their skit. 


    To watch the other skits please check out our YouTube channel here

     

    PART II: Why Human Rights?

    When United Workers began, we had to confront the challenges of how to unite into a powerful and as Dr. King  described, “new and unsettling force”. How do you bring workers together when they are day laborers who are contending with being hired and fired everyday, working jobs that may not last more than a day or a week. And when there is no legal framework that upholds the right to organize. And when conditions are so bad that many of these workers are depending on homeless shelters and meal programs to survive. 

    These are big challenges that in so many ways have only gotten worse since our founding in 2002. We see more and more of the workforce becoming temporary workers and part-time workers so corporations can exploit our labor and reap tremendous profits at our expense. As day laborers you have no job security and you don’t know how many hours you are going to work from week to week.. that must sound familiar to a majority of workers employed at the largest employers in American including Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon; or with rising new comers dispatching work via cell phone such as Lyft and Door Dash. 

    How do you build an organization when you are up against Wall Street and Big Tech that have bet big time on corporations that see us as expendable? That create, refine and invest in business models that turn more of us into simple a part of a logistics plan for moving inventory or to be replaced by automation in the very near termed?

    Below is a piece Todd Cherkis, wrote when trying to summarize this initial period where we had more questions than answers. We were trying to understand what values have the potential to build community and unite working class people across historic divisions as well as new divisions based on new technological advances making our labor more precarious. Further - we also wanted to best describe what our experiences were and that our struggles were not about small concessions here or there but about our survival. That is how how high we saw the stakes 20 years ago and now after enduring the ongoing Pandemic and seeing even further how vulnerable we all are, we know the stakes are rising for a growing majority..... Click here to read more!

     


    Art and Culture

    Spoken Poetry By: Damontae Taylor, United Workers' Youth Leader

     

     


        We need to build a mass movement of working class people to end poverty, and we need your help to do it.  If you’d like to support our work by volunteering your time and skills, please reach out to us at [email protected] to get involved in our ongoing campaigns.  You can also support us by clicking the button below and donating to United Workers. Your financial support will contribute to us becoming independently sustained by our base of members, family, and friends.

     

     

     

  • United Workers History- Part II

    When United Workers began, we had to confront the challenges of how to unite into a powerful and as Dr. King  described, “new and unsettling force”. How do you bring workers together when they are day laborers who are contending with being hired and fired everyday, working jobs that may not last more than a day or a week. And when there is no legal framework that upholds the right to organize. And when conditions are so bad that many of these workers are depending on homeless shelters and meal programs to survive. 

     

    These are big challenges that in so many ways have only gotten worse since our founding in 2002. We see more and more of the workforce becoming temporary workers and part-time workers so corporations can exploit our labor and reap tremendous profits at our expense. As day laborers you have no job security and you don’t know how many hours you are going to work from week to week.. that must sound familiar to a majority of workers employed at the largest employers in American including Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon; or with rising new comers dispatching work via cell phone such as Lyft andDoor Dash. 

     

    How do you build an organization when you are up against Wall Street and Big Tech that have bet big time on corporations that see us as expendable? That create, refine and invest in business models that turn more of us into simple a part of a logistics plan for moving inventory or to be replaced by automation in the very near termed?

     

    Below is a piece Todd Cherkis, wrote when trying to summarize this initial period where we had more questions than answers. We were trying to understand what values have the potential to build community and unite working class people across historic divisions as well as new divisions based on new technological advances making our labor more precarious. Further - we also wanted to best describe what our experiences were and that our struggles were not about small concessions here or there but about our survival. That is how how high we saw the stakes 20 years ago and now after enduring the ongoing Pandemic and seeing even further how vulnerable we all are, we know the stakes are rising for a growing majority. 

     

    Why Human Rights?

    Written By: Todd Cherkis, Leadership Organizer

     

    United Workers confronted a number of organizing challenges when it set out to improve the working conditions and pay for day laborers in Baltimore.  First, as traditional union organizers know, it is extremely difficult to organize temporary workers who are dispersed over multiple and changing work-sites that are characterized by very high turn-over that produce an entirely new workforce every few months.  In Baltimore, day laborers work for dozens of labor agencies and dozens of different contractors throughout the city, which makes even identifying and reaching them difficult.  Second, day laborers inherently lack leverage vis-à-vis employers.  Unlike production-based industries, where employers can suffer economic losses from the withdrawal of skilled labor, day labor agencies can draw from vast pools of unskilled and readily available workers to replace laborers who stop working.  In Baltimore specifically, day labor agencies maintain their access to large pools of surplus labor through the homeless shelters and soup kitchens with which they maintain good relationships.  Third, the legal framework for traditional labor organizing, based in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Board, provides no redress for day laborers.  Among other things, legal prohibitions against “secondary targets” would deprive day laborers of their only leverage.  These factors compelled us to look beyond traditional union organizing.  Other approaches, however, were rejected either because they implied “charity” or reinforced identity politics.  United Workers turned instead to human rights both as an alternative to union-based, charity-based and identity-based models and as a way of overcoming the weaknesses inherent to these approaches.  

     

    We found in the human rights framework means for overcoming the challenges of reaching and organize day laborers, as well as for cultivating interest in and mobilizing allies. Embedding day laborers’ grievances and demands in the broader human rights framework, with its emphasis on universality and human dignity, accomplishes the following.  First, by its very nature, temporary work is not conducive to workers developing a commitment to a particular workplace or employer. Embedding demands in human rights is providing the possibility of reaching and mobilizing workers irrespective of workplace, duration of employment or employer because the issues transcend place and time.  We attribute the strong appeal that human rights has registered with members to the effectiveness that framing our demands in terms of a political struggle for larger principles.  The broader framework of universal principles has also helped to penetrate race and ethnic barriers that have exacerbated day laborers’ spatial dispersal.  

     

    Second, by calling attention to a living wage and freedom from poverty as inalienable human rights to which all human beings are entitled, including day laborers, United Workers is able to articulate demands that have the potential to reach the public at large.  Instead of calling on the public to come out in support of these particular workers’ demands for higher wages, they are calling on the public to support the human rights of all.  Indeed, rather than seeking charity to alleviate the dire conditions faced by day laborers, the human rights model spotlights the political and economic cultures that force some to rely on charity instead of ensuring a distribution of resources that upholds the dignity and justice to which all persons have an inalienable right.

     

    Our first major campaign - the Living Wages Campaign at Camden Yards was a human rights campaign calling for work with dignity. It would come to transcend racial lines, gender, and even where people caught temp work to go and clean up Camden Yards as throughout the 4 years of the campaign, many temporary agencies were deployed to disorganize and disunite our campaign. 

    Through our focus on values - human rights values - that all life is sacred no matter how much you earn, what race or gender you are, your immigration status or whether you had a criminal record.. these values become the sacred center of our work and the fight for our dignity and survival at Camden Yards - at the time the largest employer of day laborers in Baltimore. 

  • Member Reflections

    Here are some reflections from two of our youth leaders who participated in the youth programing at the Hope Garden:

     

    "There are many things we do at the garden and one of those are media. In media we used DJI cameras and drones to capture people's stories at the Hope Garden. Telling stories are important because stories are your experiences you had throughout your life. Stories also inform people of the many problems we face. One of the problems we face is homelessness. Homelessness is a big problem all over the world. Poverty is another problem we face in the world, including Harlem Park. Storytelling is a way to make people more aware of these problems so they can help stop these problems. Telling stories with our media will help people see the truth instead of the many lies we can find in the news and media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and many more." -Michele Coleman, United Workers Youth Leader

     

    "I really enjoyed building a shed and garden beds. I learned about the different parts of a drill and how to help people build. I planted potatoes and carrots with Ms. Vern. Ms. Vern taught me how to take care of the plants. Also each Tuesday we paint our history and future. So if you like to build and paint and garden, come to the Hope Garden."- Marquis Coleman, United Workers Youth Leader

  • It's Movement Time!

    It’s Movement Time!!!


    United Workers has been making moves this month in more ways than one. As a mass organization of the poor in Maryland, we’re contributing our energy towards a national and statewide mobilization push for the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington on June 18th. This weekend is our annual Leadership Day in which we reflect on the kind of leadership required to build a mass movement to end poverty led by the poor. This year’s Leadership Day will focus on how we as an organization and as individual leaders carry on the legacy of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in our times. In this e-alert, we’ll share updates around these efforts, as well as content written by our members. We’ve included a letter to the editor authored by Shirley Eatmon, a MD Poor People’s Campaign leader in Western Maryland, and reflections on the Hope Garden from two youth leaders—Michele and Marquis Coleman.

    If that weren’t enough to keep us moving, we’ve been making some physical moves as well. United Workers said goodbye to our home of 9 years in the basement of St. John’s Church at 2640 St. Paul Street and moved our office to our new location at 2239 Kirk Ave. Some readers might be familiar with the space as the former home of the Oak Hill Center for Education & Culture. We’ve participated in events here before, including some of the initial meetings around the 2018 re-launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. That relationship continued to deepen in this space through Oak Hill Center’s popular Books and Breakfast event hosted in collaboration with the Baltimore committee of the MD Poor People’s Campaign. This space will now be our permanent home.


     


    The Hope Garden in Harlem Park also had its own move this month, having outgrown our former space at 1314 Harlem Ave. We’ve moved across the street to an inner block park that offers us more space and more sunlight while retaining easy access to the rec center and the surrounding community that has come to love the garden. Thanks to contributions of time and seedlings from the community, we’re already growing food and minds in the new Hope Garden.

     

    Here are some reflections from our youth leaders who participated in the youth programing at the Hope Garden:

    "There are many things we do at the garden and one of those are media. In media we used DJI cameras and drones to capture people's stories at the Hope Garden. Telling stories are important because stories are your experiences you had throughout your life. Stories also inform people of the many problems we face. One of the problems we face is homelessness. Homelessness is a big problem all over the world. Poverty is another problem we face in the world, including Harlem Park. Storytelling is a way to make people more aware of these problems so they can help stop these problems. Telling stories with our media will help people see the truth instead of the many lies we can find in the news and media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and many more." -Michele Coleman, United Workers Youth Leader

    "I really enjoyed building a shed and garden beds. I learned about the different parts of a drill and how to help people build. I planted potatoes and carrots with Ms. Vern. Ms. Vern taught me how to take care of the plants. Also each Tuesday we paint our history and future. So if you like to build and paint and garden, come to the Hope Garden."- Marquis Coleman, United Workers Youth Leader


    Moving to these new spaces is an opportunity for tremendous growth and new beginnings in our work. Just as United Workers returns to the space where we contributed to the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, so too is the Poor People’s Campaign returning to its roots in Washington D.C. in another mass mobilization that will transform our nation. Movement facilitates growth- in our movement, in our work, and even in the crops at Hope Garden. If you want to join us in this growth, sign up with us here. You can also register to join us on June 18th by clicking the link below.

    Register for the Poor People's Campaign Moral March on Washington!

    The June 18, 2022 Mass Poor People's & Low-Wage Workers' Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls will be a generationally transformative and disruptive gathering of poor and low-wealth people, state leaders, faith communities, moral allies, unions, and partnering organizations. Click here to learn more and register!


    Letter to the Editor:

    Government Must Stop Turning it's Back on Homelessness

    An article in The Carroll County Times on March 15,

    “Cities change course, clear homeless camps,” reports on the problem of homeless encampments in cities across the country. Cities are planning to use aggressive measures to remove encampments rather than treating homelessness as the humanitarian crisis it is. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, cities have focused on criminalizing people who are homeless. While doing outreach in Carroll County with the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign, I talked with people who are homeless and those working yet facing eviction and possibly becoming homeless. A woman working two jobs had hours cut and when unable to pay rent, the landlord told her to pay with her credit card, putting her more in debt. A mother with a young child was three months behind in her rent due to her place of employment closing several weeks during the pandemic and then cutting her hours. The landlord did not inform her of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that would have paid her back rent to keep her housing. A palliative patient on continuous oxygen was evicted by a landlord during the rent moratorium. These stories are not unique to Carroll County and can be heard all over Maryland and throughout the country. At the root of homelessness is systemic poverty, racism, ecological devastation, a war

    economy and the distorted moral narrative that seeks to blame the poor instead of addressing systems that cause poverty. Social welfare and antipoverty programs have been underfunded to the extent that only a quarter of eligible families receive federal housing assistance. We live in a country where there is an abundance of resources, but our government chooses not to use the resources to uplift people. Housing provides stability, security, community and belonging. Without housing, everything else collapses. On June 18, I am joining the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign with thousands of people coming from across the country in the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington to demand changes in a system that ignores the needs of people. It’s time to stand in solidarity to demand our basic rights to housing, healthcare, living wages and voting rights. Somebody’s hurting our people, and we won’t be silent anymore.

     

    Shirley Eatmon, Finksburg

    Eatmon works for the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign — Western Region


    We need to build a mass movement of working class people to end poverty, and we need your help to do it. If you’d like to support our work by volunteering your time and skills, please reach out to us at [email protected] to get involved in our ongoing campaigns. You can also support us by clicking the button below and donating to United Workers. Your financial support will contribute to us becoming independently sustained by our base of members, family, and friends.

     

  • March 2022 Update

    Hello again from United Workers!

     

    Since the start of the new year, United Workers has been engaged in our annual strategic planning process. This is an important time of reflection for the organization. We review the work of the last year, draw out lessons learned, and set our priorities for the forthcoming year. Although this is an annual process, this year’s strategic planning is especially significant. For one, we have reached a critical milestone in our organization’s history. This summer will mark our 20 year anniversary as a membership-led human rights organization of the poor and dispossessed in Maryland. From our founding by homeless day laborers in an abandoned firehouse turned homeless shelter to our Living Wages Victory at Camden Yards, from the fight for Fair Development at the Inner Harbor to our multi-issue fights for our human rights to housing, healthcare, and clean air, we have a lot to celebrate, but also a lot to learn from. In recognition of our upcoming anniversary, we’ll be including in our upcoming e-alerts a segment looking back at important moments in United Workers history, starting with the founding of the organization in this edition (see below).

    Additionally, this year’s strategic planning process is also significant, because we are envisioning the next phase as a period of “reconnaissance” to help determine our next focal point campaign.

    One of the slogans we often say in the United Workers is that the struggle is the school. However, the school extends beyond critically reflecting on our past struggles. We are also studying the history of the poor organizing the poor, and lessons from contemporaries in the movement to end poverty today. Reflecting together on the struggle is how we grow as leaders in our movement led by the poor to end poverty.

    Though the usual activity of the organization continues, we have been scheduling time twice a week to meet as a collective and talk about the work, past and future. These deep discussions are about more than our plans for the year- they’re an opportunity for political education and developing strategic unity. We are incredibly grateful to those fellow organizers who have joined us thus far in these conversations. These guests have included our own emeritus Leadership Council member Willie Baptist, Nijmie Dzurinko and Phil Wider from Put People First! PA, and Sarah Weintraub of Vermont Workers’ Center and the WI Poor People’s Campaign. They’ve generously shared their insights on strategies for leadership development, challenges and setbacks they’ve overcome, and ways to think more critically about the work we’re doing.


    This upcoming year will be a “year of reconnaissance” for United Workers. We will focus on research and education as we develop our next campaign. As Willie Baptist teaches us, you cannot correctly identify the solution if you cannot correctly identify the problem. We are not fighting for moderate reforms or crumbs from the table of the ruling class. We are fighting to end poverty, to attack it at the roots and change the system that produces it. To do this, we need to understand that system. Over the next period, we’ll be engaged in an intentional listening and research process to determine a focal point campaign- one that unites poor people across Maryland, and one that builds upon what we’ve discovered so far in 20 years of learning as we lead.

    Part I: The Founding Years

    Watch a video from our archives: “United Workers Founding Years”


    United Workers’ history began with asking questions- Why are we working so hard but still living on the street? What has happened to the economy that has kept our wages low and our basic survival needs unmet? Can we unite homeless brothers and sisters around these questions, reach a better understanding of our circumstances and the powers-that-be that are oppressing us, and do something about it?

    This video clip from our early days showcases two important aspects of the organization that have been central to our work since the beginning. First, United Workers comes out of a history of organizing among the poor and dispossessed - particularly the National Union of the Homeless movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Willie Baptist, featured in the video, was an educator and organizer with the Union of the Homeless during that time period. His emphasis on collective study and being about to develop ourselves so that we might outsmart our opponents comes from the lessons of that period - where people with little in the way of money or other resources were able to use their intelligence and resourcefulness to outsmart who and what they were up against. The connections to Willie Baptist (now an emeritus board member of United Workers) and others were instrumental in our formation and ability to stick and stay.

    Secondly, the video shows the emphasis we placed on leadership development and study. During this period in 2002-2004, we largely centered our work around two precious hours at the Eutaw Street homeless shelter. The abandoned firehouse turned small shelter afforded us a time and place to study. We started out organizing day laborers who would work all over Baltimore at some of the most powerful institutions in the city. We studied how this work was organized, compared notes on the worst and best jobs, saw how we were being divided by race and gender, and dug into the question of who is benefiting from this system, what did we see as weaknesses that we may be able to exploit and where were our leverage points as day laborers who were hired and fired every day. This was an active process that would continue when we left the shelter. Our outreach to workers as seen in the video was a central way we began to formulate and test our analysis. It was through this theory and practice that we developed and launch our first campaign - the Living Wages Campaign at Camden Yards, where we would organize the hundreds of day laborers who cleaned the stadium during and after home games.

     


    United Worker's very first protest!United Worker's very first protest! (2)

     

     

     

     

     

    United Workers launched our first campaign in 2004 with a protest march to Camden Yards.


    Register for the Poor People's Campaign Moral March on Washington!

    The June 18, 2022 Mass Poor People's & Low-Wage Workers' Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls will be a generationally transformative and disruptive gathering of poor and low-wealth people, state leaders, faith communities, moral allies, unions, and partnering organizations. Click here to learn more and register!


     

    We need to build a mass movement of working class people to end poverty, and we need your help to do it. If you’d like to support our work by volunteering your time and skills, please reach out to us at [email protected] to get involved in our ongoing campaigns. You can also support us by clicking the button below and donating to United Workers. Your financial support will contribute to us becoming independently sustained by our base of members, family, and friends.

     

     

     

  • Letter to the Editor- Shirley Eatmon

    Letter to the Editor:

    Government Must Stop Turning it's Back on Homelessness

    An article in The Carroll County Times on March 15,

    “Cities change course, clear homeless camps,” reports on the problem of homeless encampments in cities across the country. Cities are planning to use aggressive measures to remove encampments rather than treating homelessness as the humanitarian crisis it is. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, cities have focused on criminalizing people who are homeless. While doing outreach in Carroll County with the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign, I talked with people who are homeless and those working yet facing eviction and possibly becoming homeless. A woman working two jobs had hours cut and when unable to pay rent, the landlord told her to pay with her credit card, putting her more in debt. A mother with a young child was three months behind in her rent due to her place of employment closing several weeks during the pandemic and then cutting her hours. The landlord did not inform her of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that would have paid her back rent to keep her housing. A palliative patient on continuous oxygen was evicted by a landlord during the rent moratorium. These stories are not unique to Carroll County and can be heard all over Maryland and throughout the country. At the root of homelessness is systemic poverty, racism, ecological devastation, a war

    economy and the distorted moral narrative that seeks to blame the poor instead of addressing systems that cause poverty. Social welfare and antipoverty programs have been underfunded to the extent that only a quarter of eligible families receive federal housing assistance. We live in a country where there is an abundance of resources, but our government chooses not to use the resources to uplift people. Housing provides stability, security, community and belonging. Without housing, everything else collapses. On June 18, I am joining the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign with thousands of people coming from across the country in the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington to demand changes in a system that ignores the needs of people. It’s time to stand in solidarity to demand our basic rights to housing, healthcare, living wages and voting rights. Somebody’s hurting our people, and we won’t be silent anymore. 

     

    — Shirley EatmonFinksburg

    Eatmon works for the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign — Western Region

  • End of Year Newsletter

     

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