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.