REPORTS: Spring Mobilizations for Social Justice

REPORTS: Spring Mobilizations for Social Justice

MAY 1, 2010 

Every year around the world countries celebrate International Workers Day or Labor Day on May 1—commonly known as May Day. 


For the youngest republic in the industrialized world it also marks the anniversary of the 1886 Haymarket massacre, when a three-day strike for an 8-hour work day held in Chicago turned violent after a bomb exploded (thrown either by a striker or a provocateur) and police fired on demonstrators, killing several strikers as well as fellow officers. 


On a sunny first day of May in 2010, the United Workers and its coalition of workers organized and played out a day long celebration that stretched from Charles Village to downtown to Federal Hill and Fells Point. 


They gathered at 11:00 am for breakfast at Red Emma’s 2640 space (at St. Johns Church), to rally the troops and rehearse for the day’s activities. The church was electric as organizers from around the country spoke about their particular struggles, and reaffirmed the need to build relationships and continue the centuries-long movement for workers’ rights and human dignity nationwide. 


“We are not individuals overcome with cynicism,” said Bill Moyer, head of the Seattle based Backbone campaign. “We are communities—we are united human beings.” 


The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), The International Workers of the World (IWW), The Poverty Initiative of NYC, the Baltimore Algebra Project, Media Mobilizing Project, and Backbone Campaign were among the organizations represented. IVAW = member Chantelle Bateman spent six months in the Marine Corps reserve, seven months of which were spent in Iraq.   She experienced daily discrimination as a Black Muslim woman. When she left the corps she found herself homeless and unemployed. “Our struggles are connected,” said Bateman. 


The United Workers—a human rights organization led by low-wage stadium workers composed across racial and cultural lines-- was founded in 2002 at the Eutaw Street shelter-- an abandoned firehouse turned shelter-- by homeless day laborers. In 2007 they secured Maryland's living wage and other workers rights, after a four-year campaign levied against the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA).MSA, established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1986, manages Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. 


A year later, on October 25, 2008, the United Workers extended their human rights campaign into the downtown Inner Harbor, where developers General Growth Properties and Cordish companies own a majority of the commercial space. The United Workers declared the Inner Harbor a “Human Rights Zone” demanding work with dignity, education, and health care. While the Harbor is Baltimore’s tourism hub, workers receive minimum wage and suffer under poor working conditions, including sexual harassment, termination due to pregnancy, stolen tips, unpaid wages, and management that forces employees to work while sick or injured. 


Dominique Washington was employed at Five Guys, a small burger and fries chain. He recounted his experiences at the chain, including one instance where he was refused medical treatment and instead told to apply ointment on a burn he received while cooking. Washington shared his story on Morgan State University Radio’s Marc Steiner show, and as result an investigation has been launched into Five Guys’ practices. 


Stories and proclamations continued, articulated in both Spanish and English. Raquel Rojas worked at the Cheesecake Factory. She said she believed because it was such a popular restaurant, the workers would be treated fairly. Rojas had to miss work as a result of being ill, but because she lacked health insurance, she was forced to go to a community hospital. As a result of her illness, her employer systematically reduced her hours, forcing her eventually to quit. “That’s why I joined , for dignity and respect,” said Rojas. 


The workers’ testimonies illustrated what the United Workers assert as the “Poverty Zone,” a tier system where the developers are at the top, vendors are in the middle, and workers are at the bottom. “This is about maintaining a system of power, where the poor are kept poor, and the rich get richer,” said United Workers organizer Luis Larin. 


To overturn this dynamic, the United Workers and its allies are demanding that Cordish and GGP enter into a legally binding Economic Human Rights Agreement which outlines their three aforementioned terms. “We’re not asking for it, we’re demanding it,” said Larin. “Before every worker, there is a human being that deserves human rights.” 


United Workers organizer Carl Johnson led the movement in chants and song before they began preparing for their theatrical demonstrations called “neighborhood plays.” School buses rolled downtown, stopping at Lexington Market, Fells Point and Federal Hill where activists staged three of these plays—Work, Earth and Education. 


For an entire year, the United Workers and its allies planned for May Day. They rented a large studio and art space, engaged in a four-day Artful Activism Summit with the Backbone Campaign. Inner Harbor workers drove to Immokalee, Florida in December 2009 where they met with farmworkers, and learned how to incorporate street plays, puppets, music, and neighborhood parades to draw attention and build community support for worker justice. Workers also participated in a day-long conference on Justice Theater held on the Saturday of Martin Luther King Day. The workshops were conducted by Theater Action Group and Nommo Theater, two artist/activist collectives who create theater for social change, using various models, such as Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal’s internationally famous Theater of the Oppressed. 


After the acts concluded, all three groups converged on City Hall, where a final neighborhood play linking workers’ struggles metaphorically with the Underground Railroad was presented, with a huge puppet of Harriet Tubman as the centerpiece. Another solidarity cry was sounded, as the movement marched toward the Inner Harbor. 


One year ago, the closest the United Workers and their allies were allowed to the Inner Harbor grounds by Baltimore City Police was a median lot separated by a major thoroughfare. For the first time, they were able to march through the Harbor grounds, entering on the south end, and concluding with a short rally at the pavilion adjacent to the Maryland Science Center. 


Tourist onlookers had mixed reactions, much of it positive according to allies who were handing out the yellow Our Harbor Day pamphlets. 


The workers’ delegation donned black and yellow signs that read “human rights,” “solidarity” and others. A small marching band core provided a ceremonial flair, as demonstrators chanted slogans like “Who’s Harbor? Our Harbor!” 


The intention of the workers is to grow in numbers and strength, making them a force to be reckoned with at the publicly subsidized, yet privately owned Downtown Inner Harbor. 


United Workers’ ally and former leadership organizer Tom Kertes said, “Without time and work and community there will be no justice.” They hope the next time they demonstrate, it will be at the front end of the Harbor where most tourists congregate, and in the process influence violators such as Five Guys, the Cheesecake Factory and Phillips Seafood to come to the bargaining table so that Inner Harbor workers can achieve their demands. "Our involvement makes history," said Kertes. "Our solidarity is our power."