United Workers Declare the Harbor a “Human Rights Zone” — Ron Kipling Williams

United Workers Declare the Harbor a “Human Rights Zone” — Ron Kipling Williams

United Workers march on Baltimore's Inner Harbor

n an unprecedented move in Baltimore labor union history, the United Workers declared the Downtown Inner Harbor a “Human Rights Zone.”

The organization that last year won a living wage for its workers at Camden Yards announced on Saturday, October 25th at the Light Street Presbyterian Church, that they were in solidarity with the workers at the largest tourist venue in the city.

“After securing the living wage at Camden Yards, we decided to extend and expand the victory to include more low-wage workers in the city,” said Bennie Witherspoon, a leader in the United Workers and cleaner at Camden Yards. “We learned that through talking with workers at the Inner Harbor that they were experiencing many of the same human rights violations that we experienced at the stadium.”

A packed house was inside the sanctuary as they viewed a video about their 2007 milestone, “The United Workers – Human Rights Victory,” followed by remarks of support for the Inner Harbor workers and their declaration of the Human Rights Zone.

“Our church is your church,” said Rev. Rogers Scott Powers. “We stand with you in solidarity.”

“We are here for one reason – human rights, and we fight because we are human beings,” said United Workers organizer Luis Larin. “We are not asking for favors. We are demanding what is ours and what has been taken from us. We are demanding dignity and most of all respect.”

The United Workers – a bi-lingual organization of predominantly African American, Latino and Caucasian members – was founded in 2002 by homeless day laborers to address poverty issues and to demand economic rights for low-wage workers, many of whom worked at the baseball stadium. The stadium workers, who earned only $4.50 an hour, were not just demanding a living wage; they called for fair treatment: lunch and bathroom breaks, proper cleaning materials and supplies, an end to sexual harassment by certain management officials, and an overall atmosphere of dignity.

After three years worth of broken promises by Orioles owner Peter Angelos and the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), the workers threatened the Maryland Stadium Authority that controls Camden Yards with a hunger strike. Public officials – particularly Gov. Martin O’Malley – backed the United Workers' demands for a living wage, and a five-to-two panel voted for a $11.30 wage just hours before the anticipated hunger strike candlelight vigil, making it a victory party instead.

“We got our victory. Now we’re going after the Inner Harbor,” said organizer Carl Johnson. “We want the poverty wall to be broken down.”

Juan, a worker at the Cheesecake Factory echoed Johnson’s sentiment. “Unity makes us strong,” said Juan. “I believe together we will be able to win this victory.”

The focus of the United Workers now is to organize the Inner Harbor workers to uncover human rights violations, develop demands, and identify the most prolific violators. They say workers deserve not just a living wage, but human rights like health care and quality education as well. “Its going to be a hard battle,” said United Workers ally Umar Farooq. is the most visible part of Baltimore, but the injustice is invisible to most people.”

Some addressed their outrage at the tourist attraction that was subsidized by taxpayer dollars, yet workers are receiving similar treatment to that experienced by the United Workers. “The Harbor was built with our money,” says Bennie Witherspoon.

“It is not entirely unprecedented but if we’re successful, hopefully other cities will follow our model and be accountable for the public’s money that’s being spent,” said Farooq. “We’re going to demystify the trickle-down theory.”

From the sanctuary, United Workers and allies assembled at Camden Yards, and then marched to the Inner Harbor for a rally. They crossed the median space between Pratt, Light, and Calvert Streets and were about to cross Calvert Street into the main Inner Harbor area but were stopped by police officers.

The police claimed the United Workers’ permit allowed only for them to protest under the flagpoles at Pratt and Light Streets, which prohibited the protestors to be more visible to the Inner Harbor traffic.

Legal Aid Bureau attorney Peter Sabonis attempted to educate the police on the constitutionality of assembly at the Inner Harbor - to no avail.

Law enforcement officers held their ground, even positioning their squad cars toward the protesters to ensure they would not advance beyond the flagpoles. “The law is just an instrument,” said Sabonis. “These folks (the protesters) are the power.”

Under flags that read “United Way,” and “Live United,” protester signs read, “Trabajo Con Dignidad – Work with Dignity,” and “Human Rights Zone.” Despite an escalating police presence and a drizzling rain that upgraded to a windy downpour, United Workers and their allies remained steadfast.

“We are all one family, we are all one race,” said United Workers organizer Barry Lindsay. “As God has woken me up today, we will succeed. As God is with us, no one can be against us.”