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The United Workers is a human rights organization based in Maryland of low-wage workers working to create the political conditions for poverty’s end. This weekend the cleaners at Camden Yards and other day laborers organized an all-night vigil in front of the Orioles owner’s offices in downtown Baltimore. Workers also held a prayer breakfast and marched with supporters to draw attention to poverty’s wrongs and to how the publicly owned Camden Yards exploits low-wages workers for Peter Angelos’s private interests. Workers aired out Angelos's dirty laundry of profiting from poverty and using Camden Yards for his private gain at great cost to the community. Shirts we dirtied with poverty's ills and carried on a clothes line throughout the vigil and march.

This weekend’s events follow a series of protests and leadership development programs that started with a tour from Maryland to Michigan that followed the route of the Underground Railroad. Workers went to Michigan to take justice in their own hands by proposing that a worker-owned cooperative be recognized by one of the subcontractors at Camden Yards. Camden Yards is owned by the state and run by the Maryland Stadium Authority. Rather than pay living wages to the cleaners, the state spends more to outsource cleaning at the stadium. Currently cleaning is outsourced to a company based in Saginaw, MI – leading the cleaners on their Roadmap to Justice Tour this spring.

In Michigan the cleaners were well-accepted, with the contractor holding a joint press conference in their headquarters with the cleaners announcing the formation of the Living Wages Co-Op. The co-op would pay workers the city’s living wage rate, which is $9.06 an hour. Since many of the stadium’s current cleaners are paid less than Maryland’s minimum wage due to illegal transportation charges, the move to $9.06 represents a major opportunity for ending the poverty conditions at the stadium. Moreover, by operating as a worker-owned cooperative, cleaners would be able to pay themselves a living wage without charging the contractor, stadium or Orioles a penny more. Less overhead and better operations would make this possible. The planned start date for the cooperative was May 15, 2006.

Cleaners planned to hold a series of protests this summer to keep pressure and exposure on the stadium and Angelos. The first protest was scheduled for April 1, which Angelos decided would be a good day to pay out $250,000 to area soup kitchens. Of course, the United Workers doesn’t oppose money going to soup kitchens, but it’s impossible to miss that that amount of money is what it would cost Angelos to pay a living wage to the cleaners who pick up after fans paying money that goes into Angelos’s pockets. The cleaners asked the kitchens to stand with workers on the night of the protest. All refused, fearing retribution from Angelos and the Weinberg Foundation – which had matched the payout dollar for dollar. Workers protested this by banging pots and pans and chanting that “soup’s not enough” at the April Fool’s Day between the Orioles and Nationals at Camden Yards.

On May 9, 2006 the contractor missed a meeting with the co-op. A few days later communication was reestablished, but with bad news Angelos was blocking the co-op, even though he should have no role in stadium business and the co-op wouldn’t cost him a penny more. Even worse, Anglos had promised the workers in 2004 that he’d personally make up the difference between the wage then (which was $4 an hour, based on a flat rate paid to workers regardless of time worked) and the Baltimore City Living Wage. Angelos not only broke his promise then, but now he was stopping workers from taking justice in their own hands by forming their own cleaning subcontractor at Camden Yards. The cleaners showed up to work on May 15 even with the co-op blocked, demanding that Angelos let them work. The next week cleaners took a bus to DC for the Nationals vs. Orioles game to hold a Sweatshop Carnival. Fans were encouraged to play games like “Outsource that Job,” “Wheel of Poverty,” and “Peanuts for Poverty Wages Toss.”

This weekend marks a milestone for the organization with supporters and cleaners spending the night in front of Angelos’s office to bring poverty to his doorstep and to connect the conditions at Camden Yards to the bigger problem of poverty everywhere. As a human rights organization, the United Workers seeks an end to poverty. And while the group is focused on securing living wages at a single stadium, it’s larger mission goes beyond just those cleaners. The United Workers organizes around the value of the inherent dignity of each person, using the framework provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to advance this value. And the group’s core strategy is to organize low-workers from the bottom up by developing leaders from the ranks of the poor. The United Workers is led by low-workers, with its Leadership Board comprised entirely of low-wage cleaners and other day laborers.

All photos from the weekend's events

Disclaimer: I am the Communications Organizer for the United Workers.

Originally posted to Tom Kertes on Sat Jun 24, 2006 at 10:17 PM PDT.

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