Workers at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, have delayed a planned hunger strike to protest low wages until Saturday September 8, 2007. The workers reached the decision after hearing encouraging words about an increase in wages from the governor at a Labor Day prayer service and rally at the Light Street Presbyterian Church.
Workers insist that the issue is dignity and respect, rather than simply money. “Every time I go to work here, I feel like less of a person because of what I have to go through,” said Lamont Pollard. He also said that workers are not given rubber gloves and other needed supplies, and are required to eat their meals in the restrooms. Pollard has worked for 3 years cleaning up after games. “When I leave, I feel better – like I just got out of jail. It shouldn’t be like that,” he added.
Workers displayed a sign that read, “Now we hunger for justice”, a quote from Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American labor leader who regularly launched hunger strikes to protest unfair working conditions, especially among migrant farm workers.
The state-owned facility is operated by the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), which also operates the M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens. The MSA is the largest employer of day laborers in the city, with 150 to 200 workers cleaning up after each game.
The United Workers Association (UWA) has been demanding a living wage for workers who clean up after baseball and football games. UWA, a human rights group founded by homeless day laborers in Baltimore, contends that the state exploits the contract workers, many of whom are African American, by paying low wages. As a state agency, the MSA is exempt from the city’s living wage of $9.62 per hour.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley expressed support for the living wage for the part-time workers. MSA chief Frederick W. Puddester concurred. The MSA board is scheduled to meet on Thursday, September 6, to discuss rebidding of the cleaning contracts. The new contracts would go into place after the end of the 2007-2008 football season.
“We hope that by postponing the hunger strike, we can provide the MSA [with] the breathing room required to come to a just decision,” said Rose Menustik, a UWA organizer. Menustik added that she hoped the MSA would “come to a just decision and turn actions and intentions into commitments.”
Scores of workers, along with labor organizers and union reps, crowded in the courtyard behind the Federal Hill church, enjoying snacks including muffins, bagels, and fruit. Workers say that they pick up trash and clean the bathrooms at the Orioles and Ravens stadiums during and after each game. They average $7 per hour. Under current metropolitan law, service contracts with the city must pay at least the living wage of $9.62. A loophole, however, allows the MSA to award contracts to cleaning companies who pay much less.
Under the Maryland Living Wage law, which goes into effect on October 1, 2007, state government contractors must pay $11.30 per hour in the Baltimore-Washington metro area, and $8.50 in other parts of the state. This is just one of many metro living wage laws in the U.S. In order to qualify for this rate, workers must work for 13 consecutive weeks over the life of the contract. Because of the many away games, the contract cleaners are often idle for a week or more, which disqualifies them under the law.
MSA Chair Puddester claims that he has been in favor of a living wage for the contract cleaners since the matter was brought to his attention last month. “Can the stadium authority argue that they’re exempt on a technicality? Yes, they could. But I don’t plan to take that approach.”
When the full 7-member board is present at a public meeting on Thursday, Puddester plans to ask the members to specify that bids for the 2008 baseball season and 2008-2009 football season specify that workers be paid a living wage.