The United Workers (UW) welcomed the New Year with a courtroom victory over the Disney Company, whose Baltimore affiliate closed the ESPN Zone restaurant abruptly in June, 2010 without any prior notice to workers. A U.S. District Court rendered a “summary judgment” in favor of the workers last week, the court’s final determination that Disney is liable for the notification failure, although the determination of damages and compensation remains. The legal victory is an important step in the UW’s campaign to hold the beneficiaries of economic development subsidies accountable for actions that violate human rights and disrupt communities.
Disney chose to inform the Baltimore media of the restaurant’s closing 24 hours before it was to occur, but none of the roughly 200 restaurant staff. “My four year old was watching TV and she came into my room and said ‘Mom your restaurant is closing.’ That’s how I learned,” said one ESPN Zone server at the time.
Workers scrambled to pay rents, mortgages, utility bills, and obtain health care. Many were forced to re-locate. Two workers developed cancer during the time they were without health coverage. While Disney provided “severance pay” to the employees, the amounts were paltry.
After losing in its attempt to dismiss the case in 2011, the media giant was rebuffed again last week, when, upon request of both parties that the case be decided without a trial, U.S. District Court Catherine Blake sided with the workers.
The decision all but ends Disney’s argument that payment of the paltry severance package to the workers during the 60 days after restaurant closing was the equivalent of giving the workers 60 days prior notice of the shuttering—a pre-termination time period required by the Federal Worker Re-Adjustment and Notice (WARN) Act.
The UW at the time was organizing tourist zone restaurant workers into human rights committees, in furtherance of its campaign to require human rights based “Fair Development” at Baltimore’s renowned Inner Harbor. Ironically, as the Campaign pressured developer David Cordish to require his Inner Harbor tenants to respect the human rights of their workers, Disney instructed one of those tenants, ESPN Zone, to close immediately as part of a business decision to terminate all Zone restaurants nationwide.
The UW sprung into action and restaurant workers fought back, claiming via protests and press conferences that the closing violated their human rights and the WARN Act. The UW also arranged group meetings between ESPN Zone employees and low-cost attorneys, and ensured that the litigation team deferred to the workers throughout the case.
“Most lawyers sit in their office and write letters that threaten litigation,” said Luis Larin, a UW organizer. “The lawyers in our case came to our office with a laptop and a projector, and wrote the letter with a group of workers telling their stories and using their words, mixed in with some legal citations of course.”
The restaurant closing was emblematic of a Baltimore economic development strategy that has provided millions in public subsidies for downtown developers bent on attracting tourists with sprawling entertainment and hospitality venues. Workers at these retail vendors are not only paid low wages, but go without health care, sick leave, vacation time, and, if they resist employer abuses, regular work hours. Meanwhile, private developers and their vendors profit handsomely. The UW’s “Fair Development” campaign seeks publicly subsidized development that is equitable, universal, participatory, transparent, and accountable.
ESPN Zone workers often weathered the winter tourist “down season” by relaying on the tips and overtime brought by the summer crowds. The abrupt June closing robbed the workers of their expected summer boost. As insulting were the offered “severance packages,” which were based on winter earnings.
"They were just there to make money off us," said Leonard Gray, a former cook at ESPN Zone. “We were the backbone. We made the ESPN how it is and how they got rid of us is real bad and I know they know that. Don't try to sugarcoat it. We are human beings.”
The Judges decision will require Disney to re-calculate the severance amounts, based on estimated summer earnings. Lawyers in the case will take steps to ensure relief extends to all 200 plus Zone workers, obtain additional damages, and anticipate appeal. It’s hoped the ruling will encourage settlement negotiations. Disney pulled out of negotiations this summer, choosing to pay its attorneys to continue litigating. Workers suspect that the amounts they are owed are far less than Disney is paying its lawyers for extending the lawsuit.