Is BUILD counting on confrontation?

October 25, 1993

Long before the post-World War II civil rights campaigns, a firebrand named Saul Alinsky lived and worked in Chicago. Using tactics that blended Machiavelli and P.T. Barnum, he became the nation's foremost expert on organizing communities on the basis of confrontation and publicity.

Mr. Alinsky is long dead but his Industrial Areas Foundation lives. It had a hand in setting up a number of Baltimore activist groups, including South East and Northeast Community Organizations. Currently, its chief project here is Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development.

BUILD has now embarked on a campaign against city hotels and, unless its demands for "a living family wage" and better job opportunities are met, the organization says it will "march" on downtown hotels Nov. 21. The trouble is that BUILD refuses to define what it means by "a living family wage." Instead it is using hotel operators' unwillingness to disclose detailed salary and personnel information -- which they characterize as "proprietary" -- as an excuse not to continue talks with them.

This is regrettable. After BUILD made its initial demands in April, rapid progress was made in setting up an Academy of Hospitality at Southwestern High School and other training programs at the Baltimore City Community College and Morgan State University. Further progress seemed in the offing when BUILD indicated it would not continue talks unless the salary information it had requested was provided. (Hourly wages in top hotels average $8 an hour and salaried employees make more than $33,000, operators say).

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been sympathetic to BUILD's demands. "I believe as a matter of policy that if you work full-time in this country, you shouldn't be poor." But he, too, is puzzled by BUILD's inflexibility and concerned by its threat to conduct the Nov. 21 protest.

"I don't think this should be an either-or situation, particularly since BUILD has never defined living wage," he said.

In its initial demands, BUILD touched on some valid concerns, such as low wages and dead-end jobs. But we have serious doubts as to whether these kinds of questions can be solved in one industry sector in isolation from the overall economy.

A recent article in Rolling Stone suggests that professional organizers from the Industrial Areas Foundation have selected the Baltimore hotels as a test case for a nationwide campaign. For that reason, they may not be interested in really resolving anything as much as highlighting a particular economic problem. If that is so, BUILD and Baltimore are merely pawns.

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