Baltimoreans Press Casino for Real Local Benefits

United Workers organizer, Michael Fox, chronicles the fight for Human Rights based, Fair Development, in Baltimore for Labor Notes.


Caesars Entertainment and UNITE HERE are days away from signing an agreement that will guarantee a fair process for workers to unionize at Baltimore’s new Horseshoe Casino.

“This agreement will be the first step toward ensuring that we will have good jobs in the casino for Baltimore residents,” said Roxie Herbekian, president of UNITE HERE Local 7. The deal will likely provide a neutrality pledge from Caesars not to oppose unionization, and a card-check system to allow unions to be approved once a majority of workers have signed union cards.

For months, union members at other Caesars locations in the U.S. and Canada have been calling on management to respect Baltimore workers’ right to organize. At the same time, a local campaign has united groups across the city to transform how development happens in Baltimore.

The Horseshoe Casino, set to open in 2014 with an estimated 1,700 permanent jobs, is its first target.

The Fair Development Campaign brings together UNITE HERE Local 7; United Workers, a human rights organization led by low-wage workers; and Community Churches United, a faith-based coalition of local churches and community organizations. Endorsers include AFSCME, the stagehands union (IATSE), the NAACP, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Presbytery of Baltimore, and community organizations.

The groups are demanding development that prioritizes worker and community needs over private profit. Baltimore’s current model of development, they say, is subsidizing big developers for downtown projects while cutting funds for essential neighborhood resources, such as fire stations, rec centers, and schools.

Since January, campaign members have attended city council meetings to demand that Caesars hire locally, pay a living wage, and respect the right to organize at the Horseshoe. They are also demanding community participation in decisions over potential road closures, an issue important to the new casino’s neighbors. Members have canvassed surrounding neighborhoods and held community meetings and presentations about fair development.

More than 400 residents, union members, and supporters rallied near the site of the future casino on April 20.

“What we’re here to do today is to let Caesars know, let the mayor know, and any other politician know, that we will not stand to be disrespected anymore in Baltimore city,” Community Churches United organizer Rich Armstrong told the crowd.

Diverse Groups

The rally reflected the diverse groups and issues uniting under the banner of fair development.

Hip-hop artists from Benjamin Franklin High School performed. Workers testified about Baltimore’s current development model, in which developers are given tax breaks and subsidies while workers are left struggling to survive in low-wage and temporary jobs. Faith leaders, union representatives, and an advocate for the homeless all spoke.

“The homeless population has grown from over 4,000 to 6,000,” said Tony Simmons from the community group Housing Our Neighbors. “And one of the main reasons that this is happening is because big developers are taking over our city and making promises they knew they weren’t gonna keep. They promised to build affordable housing. They promised to create jobs that pay a living wage.”

The rally closed with a lively performance of singing and street theatre, featuring people-sized playing cards. Coalition members spent many evenings together in the lead-up to the rally—painting the playing cards and signs, practicing for the performance, canvassing, and phone-banking.

“It was powerful,” said Shantress Wise, a United Workers leader who acted in the street theatre. “We were all working for the same cause, and you could feel it through the whole campaign.”

Setting an Example

The casino is the latest development in the Inner Harbor entertainment complex, where the city and state have spent over $2 billion in public money since the 1970s on subsidies, tax breaks, and land grants to big developers. The jobs have remained largely low-wage and temporary. With this organizing agreement, Fair Development Campaign members hope Caesars can set an example for future development projects in Baltimore.

But some issues are still pending. State law requires that 5.5 percent of the Horseshoe Casino’s slot revenue go to the local community to offset the casino’s negative impact. Estimated community revenue could be as high as $15 million. However, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has recommended to the Baltimore Casino Local Development Council, which oversees the community impact funds, that $6 million of that money be given back to Caesars.

The issue has enraged local residents, who would like to use the money for neighborhood resources threatened with cuts by the city, such as rec centers, fire stations, and schools. The campaign is investigating ways for residents to participate directly in the allocation of this community money.

United Workers is creating human rights committees across the city, where participants are educating themselves about development and taking action. One of the most active, the West Side Committee, meets every Friday night at James McHenry Rec Center.

Its members are residents of Baltimore’s West Side, which has felt the neglect from city policies. Entire blocks of homes are vacant and boarded. Supermarkets are rare. Rec centers are disappearing.

Last summer, members held rallies and collected over 3,000 signatures to save the Truck 10 Fire House and several recreation centers that were slated to be closed or privatized by the city. In October, the mayor reversed her decision to close Truck 10. But with this year’s city budget due in May, and city plans to move the fire station across town, the West Side Committee is gearing up for another fight.

Students from Benjamin Franklin High School have also started a human rights committee and are educating their neighbors about the construction of a massive incinerator only a mile from the school.

The Fair Development Campaign is studying other cities’ experiences with Community Benefit Agreements. These are deals between residents and developers, where in order to build in their neighborhood, the developer promises to provide community benefits such as supermarkets, recreation centers, and jobs to neighborhood residents.

“After we leave here today,” said Armstrong toward the close of the April 20 rally, “we’re going to make a movement throughout this city.”

Michael Fox is an organizer with United Workers.