Stadium Workers Demand Freedom from Poverty

Stadium Workers Demand Freedom from Poverty

Over the last four years or so, baseball fans in Baltimore may have noticed some unexpected activities taking place outside the stadium before game time. The demonstrations, street theatre, and leafletting are part of the United Workers’ campaign to get a living wage for stadium cleaners and bring an end to public sector poverty. What fans and the public don’t see is the darker side of baseball in Baltimore. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the jewel of Baltimore’s downtown landscape. The baseball stadium alone attracts over 2 million visitors to the downtown area each year and generates an estimated $18 million in annual revenues. Since its completion in 1992, and its promise of thousands of employment opportunities, new stadiums around the country have modeled themselves after ours. But, there is an oppressive system of worker exploitation at work that should make baseball fans around the country think twice about the success of stadiums like Camden Yards. Day labor is the situation in which workers are hired and paid one day at a time, with no job security or guarantee that more work will be available in the future. Camden Yards is the largest employer of day laborers in Baltimore. The United Workers is a human rights organization made up of low wage workers that began their campaign for a living wage at Camden Yards in 2004. At that time, the Maryland Stadium Authority subcontracted the cleaning of Camden Yards to Aramark, a well-known cleaning contractor. Cleaners at the stadium were paid an illegal flat rate of $30 a night, well below the federal minimum wage of $6.15 an hour, regardless of how long they actually worked. The sub-poverty wages at the stadium were accompanied by a long list of human rights violations including sexual harassment, unpaid wage claims, no breaks for workers, health code violations, unsanitary working conditions, and gender and racial discrimination to name only a few. The United Workers’ demand was simple and clear, “Pay a living wage that moves people out of poverty”. The start of the campaign in 2004 brought exposure of these conditions and a promise from Orioles owner, Peter Angelos. The United Workers say the Angelos promised to pay cleaners the difference needed to get to a living wage. The Maryland Stadium Authority responded by firing the cleaning contractor Aramark and hiring Knight Facilities Management (Knight FM) located in Saginaw Michigan. Knight FM signed the United Workers code of conduct making this the first time in US day labor history that workers had been granted representation. Although wages were increased to $7 hour, the United Workers asked Angelos in 2005 to honor his broken promise to pay workers a living wage. They got no response. In 2006, the United Workers took the fight to Saginaw, Michigan. Cleaners met and held a press conference with Knight FM to pitch an alternative to the system at Camden Yards. Workers proposed a Living Wages Co-op that would be hired directly through Knight FM, bypassing one of the temp agencies. This pilot project would show that by cutting out the day labor agencies, workers could make a living wage without costing a penny more. Knight FM supported the project and start date of May 15th was set. This was a moment of hope as workers anticipated control over their working conditions and a living wage. Only days before the start date Knight FM called to say the co-op had been blocked and the agreement was off. Workers responded by protesting on the originally planned start date. In 2007, The United Workers decided to take their struggle straight to the top, the Maryland state legislature. Workers went to Annapolis to testify at the budget hearings for the Maryland Stadium Authority. This prompted the beginning of negotiations with the Maryland Stadium Authority. The MSA contract with Knight Facilities Management is up for rebid at the end of the summer and the United Workers see this as an opportunity to change the system that has kept so many in poverty. They have given the MSA a deadline of September 1st to enter into a binding living wages agreement. The United Workers have offered the Stadium Authority several solutions to a living wage. One solution could be to create a more efficient system of subcontracting stadium cleaners. Currently the MSA subcontracts the work to Knight FM more than 600 miles from Baltimore. Knight FM then subcontracts the cleaning to local temp agencies like Next Day Staffing here in Baltimore. The temp agencies then hire workers to work for sub-poverty wages under inhumane conditions. This chain of outsourcing is an inefficient use of public money, as well as decreases accountability for worker violations. Meet Douglas Thomas Until recently, Douglas Thomas was employed as a stadium cleaner. He says that Next Day Staffing in Fells Point is one an example of how corrupt and inhumane these temp agencies really are. We spoke with Douglas in his west Baltimore home, he described the conditions at the stadium and the difficulties of raising a family on sub-poverty wages. Douglas says, “Its hard on my wife to see what I go through , the torment and the hassle. You know an eighteen dollar paycheck is not gonna buy my son diapers. It really hurts me, cause when I work, I don’t work for myself, I work for them. I work for my family. I would do any kind of job to support my family. To make a living wage would make me feel better about the work I was doing. It would make me feel at ease to know that I was making at least what I deserve. I would stick with a job like that. I didn’t stay at this job because they were cheating me out of my hours ... that’s not right.” After numerous disputes over unpaid wages, months of unbearable working conditions, and a recent job related head injury, Douglas Thomas had been through enough. He quit, but says, “They aren’t getting over on me. I’m going to fight this till the end, until I see something happen with Next Day. If it takes shutting them down—by all means.” Douglas Thomas is not alone. Another employee of next day staffing who wished to remain anonymous, “I once worked 12 hours straight in the stadium. They don’t give us breaks, and I couldn’t stand the thirst or hunger any longer. They don’t let us bring in anything, so we can’t bring in food or water. I thought it was gross, but I had to drink some of the water that was thrown out. Everyone eats the food that they find, usually popcorn and peanuts. We drink the water and sodas that are thrown out, because we’re so thirsty. The new workers ask what to do about the food and water all night, and we tell them not to worry, because there are usually things left over that we can eat and drink if we need to.” According to the United Workers, these incidents are a daily experience for cleaners at the stadium. On top of the neglect and discrimination in the work place, Next Day illegally takes $6.00 out of employees’ paychecks for a mandatory 5-minute van ride. That’s equivalent to one hour’s worth of cleaning up trash. Then workers are told to wait outside the Stadium, sometimes for hours before actually being clocked-in. By the time they actually get paid, the cleaners average less than $5.50 and hour. One alternative to this wasteful system might be the Living Wages Co-op that was blocked back in 2006, except for this time the co-op would contract directly from the Stadium Authority. By cutting out this wasteful system of outsourcing, the cleaners at Camden Yards take on the task of managing the cleaning of the stadium themselves while reducing the unnecessary outsourcing of contracts to other parties. Another suggested solution to the problem of public-sector poverty is that the MSA put language in the Request for Proposals stipulating that cleaning contractors at the stadium would be required to pay workers a living wage. After three long years of broken promises, conditions for the cleaners at Camden Yards have not changed, and stadium workers are fed up. There demand has always been simple and clear, “Pay a living wage that moves people out of poverty”. They have now given the Maryland Stadium Authority a September 1st deadline. In April 2007, the MSA released the Impact of Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Maryland’s Economy, 2006. The report concludes that, “Despite several consecutive Orioles’ losing seasons and the existence of a Washington D.C. based professional baseball franchise, Baltimore’s fan loyalty coupled with the excellence of Oriole Park as a facility allowed the Orioles to again exceed 2 million in attendance.” That’s more than most teams in the league. It seems that the cleaners and maintenance personnel at the stadium are doing an excellent job. The question is after three years will the Maryland Stadium Authority honor their word to work with workers towards a solution by September 1? Imagine if Maryland supported its stadium workers with the same enthusiasm it gives its team. Editors Note: A living wage ordinance requires that employers pay wages that are above federal or state minimum wage levels. Only a specific set of workers are covered by living wage ordinances, usually those employed by businesses that have a contract with a city or county government or those who receive economic development subsidies from the locality. The rational behind the ordinances is that city and county governments should not contract with or subsidize employers who pay poverty level wages. The living wage level is usually the wage a full-time worker would need to earn to support a family above the federal poverty line, ranging from 100% to 130% of the poverty measurement.