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



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