United Workers History- Part V

Human Rights Zone Campaign at the Inner Harbor: Part 2

Written By: Todd Cherkis, United Workers’ Organizer

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Check out his powerful testimony here.

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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