United Workers Celebrates Its Tenth Anniversary

This week, NESRI’s partner, the United Workers marks its tenth anniversary by remembering its past, celebrating the present, and looking forward to the future with words from its leaders, archival video, and music.

Ten years ago, a group of homeless day laborers huddled in a Baltimore homeless shelter with an organizer and a lawyer, and reflected on the relationships between temporary work, homelessness, poor schools, and lack of health care.   Each week the group gained a better understanding of the systemic and personal factors in their struggles, the connections between them, and their power to change both.

At one meeting the group read a newspaper story about temporary workers at Microsoft, and recognized that their own temporary work experience was part of a growing and troubling business model in this country.  At another, they visited an open-air food market where they climbed atop milk crates and tested their public voices by telling crowds about the challenges of hiring themselves out daily to get a wage that couldn’t free them from homelessness.   At another, they leafleted fans attending a Baltimore Orioles game, and told their own stories about cleaning the stadium as day laborers and the sweatshop working conditions they faced. Through it all, the inherent dignity and worth of every person was kept foremost and exalted.

As they took up a campaign at the Orioles’ Camden Yards stadium, they fought misconceptions.  “Journalists and others frequently characterized us as a union or workers association, “ said Tom Kertes, a UW organizer at the time, “but we corrected them.  We were a human rights organization, and we explained the distinction.”

That difference was reflected in the organizing principles of the UW campaign at Camden Yards, which were defined in terms of transformative human rights values such as dignity, respect, and the inherent worth of all people, rather than simply technical policy demands, such as an appeal to raise workers wages.  

Kertes again, “Rather than frame our fight for a wage increase for temporary workers at the stadium, we framed it as a fight for living wages for all workers, regardless of color, language, status.   Everything in the political and educational components of the campaign stemmed from a human rights value framework.  And the human rights violations at Camden Yards went beyond the right to work with human dignity.–such as the denial of health care, education, and housing.”  

Personal story telling and the emphasis on values helped African American, Latino, and white workers overcome historic divisions, and the story of Maryland’s own Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad’s path to freedom became the symbol of and connection to the workers’ own journey.  

As the workers organized, their power grew, and the stories of other human rights battles gave them the courage to take on the Orioles owner and the Maryland Stadium Authority to demand work with dignity.  In three short years, the UW won the campaign. Camden Yards cleaners now work with the protection of a contract, grievance rights, enforceable codes of employer conduct, and living wages – basic rights that few temporary workers in this country have been able to claim to date.

Since then, the UW has turned its human rights vision to the world of local economic development, challenging the public subsidies that profit private developers of Baltimore’s tourist zone at the expense of zone workers who struggle with low wages, no health care, sexual harassment, and hostile work environments.  These human rights violations were documented in Hidden in Plain Sight, co-written with NESRI in 2011.   When Disney abruptly closed its eight ESPN Zone restaurants nationwide in 2010, only Baltimore workers fought back.  The UW facilitated worker-led litigation–which challenged the mega-company for lost wages—that will soon be settled to the workers benefit.   

The rights-based development fight now has expanded citywide, and includes community development as well as economic, and allies such as labor unions and churches.  In October, the UW successfully fought a fire station closing by emphasizing the inequity of withdrawing public services from already underserved neighborhoods while keeping the public subsidy faucet open for downtown developers.   The battle is a harbinger of future conflicts, which will decide whether public subsidy and land use development decisions in Baltimore can be governed by  human rights principles that prioritize the needs and voices of disadvantaged communities.