Fighting for Human Rights Amid Development: An Interview with The United Workers

Fighting for Human Rights Amid Development: An Interview with The United Workers

Southwest Baltimore. Photo By: The Baltimore Sun
Southwest Baltimore. Photo By: The Baltimore Sun

On January 14th, 2013, Indyreader posted an announcement from editor Corey Reidy, that our allies at The United Workers (UW) were facing eviction from their offices in Southwest Baltimore due to development by the University of Baltimore system. We stated: 

On December 1st, 2012, The United Workers (UW) celebrated their ten year anniversary. The United Workers stands as a true grassroots community organization that mobilizes with low-wage workers both to meet immediate labor rights victories as well as with the grand end-goal to completely eradicate poverty.

Ten years is quite an achievement. Within these ten years they lead and won a campaign to achieve living wages for workers at Camden Yards, declared the Inner Harbor a Human Rights Zone, and have been endlessly strategizing around this issue for the past several years. The United Workers recently won a victory against The Walt Disney Company, with U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake announcing that the Inner Harbor's previous ESPN Zone location "did not adequately compensate its workers when the Disney subsidiary closed its doors at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on June 16, 2010.[1]

Despite these and many other efforts, on January 7th, 2013, the public was notified that The United Workers were being evicted from their Southwest Baltimore office.

In a recent interview, UW's organizer -- Michael Fox, discussed with us their eviction, the details surrounding it and how human rights issues such as gentrification play a leading role, and their plans for the future. 

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Corey Reidy: When and how did the United Workers learn that you were being evicted from your office space?

Mike Fox: We learned about the eviction from an email that our landlord sent to Leadership Organizer Robin Bingham a couple of days before Christmas. When we got back to the office after the New Year, we found a letter that they had sent to us while we were out of the office for the holidays.

Reidy: How long have you been in the space? Why is it valuable to you?

Fox: We’ve been in the space since 2009. It has been our home. Our rent has been very reasonable. And our location has been particularly important since we began organizing more directly in neighborhoods last year, with our committees. For instance, our West Side Committee fought hard last summer to keep their local Rec Centers and Fire Stations open. They collected thousands of petition signatures and were able to keep open Truck 10, one of the busiest firehouses in the city.

Reidy: Why do you believe you are being evicted?

Fox: It is very clear that we are being evicted due to the expanding presence of the University of Maryland (UM) in West Baltimore. Over the last few years, UM has bought much of the property around our current office for its business school and Biopark. Due to the UM development, our non-profit landlord has been priced out of a number of community spaces and is now forcing us out to make room for its own relocated community programs. This eviction is one of the many untold stories of failed development and systemic abuses across Baltimore. The actions of the University of Maryland have largely gone unnoticed—from demolishing low-income housing in the community to massive land purchases that led to our eviction and, no doubt, the displacement of other community residents and institutions. The result has been increased power for the few, while the livelihood and empowerment of the community has been completely undermined.

Reidy: How does this eviction impact and/or coincide with the type of work that the United Workers do?

Fox: It is another sign of the failed development policies of the city, major developers and institutions like the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins. It is directly related to our campaign and it is the same reality that folks are facing across this city.

The eviction has been an unnecessary distraction from our important campaign and statewide work, and has directly impacted our local projects. Our media team and West Side Committee meet at our office, located within walking distance for many of our members. We just launched a food share program in which our offices have been used for temporary food storage, with distribution taking place at the rec center next door. Over the last year we have developed a important relationship with this community space, and moving will make it more difficult to continue to work together as closely.

Reidy: What does the process of gentrification currently look like in West Baltimore?

Fox: From our offices two blocks away, you can see the cranes float overhead, constructing the latest building of the University of Maryland’s Biopark. Down the street, where a building once stood, there’s a gaping block-long hole in the ground, waiting for construction. Property is bought and sold. Deals are made. Organizations are squeezed out from one building and into another, or forced out of the neighborhood—United Workers is one of them. One of our members, who lives a few blocks away, told me this week that his housing complex was already bought by the University of Maryland a few years ago, with residents expecting eviction in the future. Residents have a sense of unease—a feeling that they cannot plan for the future, because they don’t know what will be here or where they will be. This is what gentrification looks like and its further proof of the failed development strategies of the city and powerful institutions in Baltimore.

Development in itself is not bad. Our communities need development, but they need fair development, which actually takes them into account; in which the current residents of the community are actually the beneficiaries of the development, rather than the expendable past.

Reidy: What are the United Workers next steps; both in terms of the eviction and presumed subsequent relocation and in terms of the organizing work that you do? How can folks get involved in those efforts?

Fox: In terms of the eviction, the next step is to find a new office space. We have to move out by the end of the month. We have some good leads, but are still looking. If anyone has any suggestions of potential space, we would love to hear from you. Also, our rent is likely to increase substantially. Folks can help us cover this unbudgeted increase in costs by making a donation. We have already received an outpouring of support from our close allies and friends and we are very grateful.

We are not fighting our eviction, because it is an unfortunate consequence of a larger systemic problem: the ongoing failed development policies of the city. This is our focus. Over the last year we have expanded our focus from a campaign for human rights at the Inner Harbor to a citywide Fair Development campaign. We realized that the same failed policies at the Inner Harbor—city subsidies to big developers, while the workers continue to make poverty wages and face systemic human rights abuses—is the reality across the city.

Everywhere, the city government cuts resources for community resources, like rec centers and fire houses, while subsidizing big development projects that only benefit the rich and powerful. These projects lack transparency and are accountable to no one.

We believe that every development project in the city should abide by five basic human rights principles: Universality, which means that it should be for everyone; Equity, meaning that it should benefit everyone equally; Participation, meaning that everyone should have a say in how the project is carried out; Transparency, meaning that the government and developers must be open about information and decision-making; and Accountability, meaning that there must be a means to holding government and developers accountable for failing to meet human rights standards. Development that does not abide by these basic principles is flawed and unfair.

There are countless ways for people to get involved. They can join one of our human rights committees being formed throughout the city. These committees are discussing issues of fair development and taking action. People can talk to their neighbors about the need for us to unite for development that is transparent, accountable, and above all, fair. We are also joining forces with Unite HERE and Community Churches United and planning a major action for fair development on April 20. Folks can visit unitedworkers.org to learn more, get the latest updates, find out about upcoming community events, or view the latest videos and photos from the media team.

Reidy: Any final thoughts?

Fox: On December 4, 1986, the UN General Assembly passed a Declaration on the Right to Development. Article 2 reads: ‘The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.”

Unfortunately, until now, development has not been for the “human person.” It has been for the big developers and the tourists, the corporations and the powerful. Meanwhile our communities are in crisis. We are experiencing systemic human rights abuses in every sector—work, housing, health, education, and the environment. In order to address these big problems we must build a large social movement. Forty five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a movement of the poor, united across color lines, to be a “new and unsettling force” in our complacent national life. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign to pressure Washington to pass an Economic Bill of Rights that would include full employment, work with dignity, decent housing, adequate education, participation, and health care for all. We are still fighting for these rights, today; fighting for Fair Development. By joining forces, telling our own stories, and demanding our basic human rights, we can change what is politically possible in Baltimore, Maryland, and across the country.

 

Photo of Corey Reidy

Corey Reidy has been an Indyreader collective member since the start of 2009. And.. she adores it with all her heart. When Reidy isn't editing, writing, interviewing, or other Indyreader-centric organizing, she works to do other forms of radical activism -- including, but not limited to, organizing/being a board member of Hollaback! Baltimore. If she's not organizing, Reidy is most likely reading, biking, or practicing/studying yoga (of which she adores and will 100% go to bat to defend and promote).