Alliance for a new work force

May 22, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

In an effort to boost the fortunes of Baltimore's working poor, BUILD, the church-based citizens group, is to announce today that it has joined forces with the state's largest public employee union to organize low-wage workers in the city.

The partnership between Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) -- to be formalized this evening in a rally at Knox Presbyterian Church in East Baltimore -- is a significant departure for both groups.

For BUILD, the alliance represents a move to step up its 13-month-old "social compact" campaign. The campaign aims to enhance the pay, benefits and training of the workers who maintain the Inner Harbor's glitter, staffing its businesses and cleaning its buildings.

For AFSCME, which represents more than 8,000 government employees based in Baltimore, the partnership is a foray into organizing workers -- often part-time or temporary employees hired by small contractors -- across industry lines.

"This is the new American work force -- contingent, temporary, part-time, low-wage workers doing what in many cases used to be decent jobs," said Kimberlee Keller, AFSCME's area director. "This is the most direct possible way to address the problem of poverty in the city: Let's look at what people earn on the job."

Blacka Wright, an emerging leader of the workers association being launched this evening, says she is typical of the new downtown work force. At 27, the high school graduate earns $5.25 an hour (no benefits) as a part-time hotel housekeeper. She sees few opportunities for advancement and finds little satisfaction in her work.

"Without this organization . . . nothing is going to change," she said.

Ms. Wright anticipates resistance to her organizing efforts not only from businesses, but also from fellow workers. Their anger about pay and working conditions is often "overpowered," she says, by fear of losing their jobs.

The New York native wants to turn her anger into positive action. She recalls cleaning the Baltimore Arena when the circus was in town for $4.25 an hour and thinking that just the price of one $21 admission would pay five workers for an hour.

"My dissatisfaction makes me angry, and my anger calms my fear and allows me to stand up and address these issues," Ms. Wright said. "If you're one person, they act like they don't see you. But if you're 200 or 300, they can't overlook it."

Ms. Wright and other workers have crafted a campaign strategy in recent months, meeting in small groups with BUILD and AFSCME organizers. They envision the workers group as a force that can extract concessions from city politicians and

downtown businesses: higher wages, more full-time jobs, benefit packages for part-timers and temporaries.

"Do minimum-wage workers in part-time jobs in service industries have any political power? None," said Jonathan Lange, a BUILD organizer working on the campaign. "Do they need some? Absolutely."

The campaign's basic argument is that indirect costs to the city of having a large working-poor population -- declining tax revenues, growth of the food stamp rolls, inadequate medical care and all the social ills that accompany poverty -- are higher over the long term than the cost of paying higher wages. Organizers say service work is undervalued.

But Tom Shaner, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association, says the organizers risk driving jobs out of a city that can ill afford more losses. He said building owners -- faced with slack occupancy rates, declining rents and large debt burdens -- are struggling to turn a profit.

"It's a very tight market. There is a lot of competition, and sometimes it's pennies that make the difference," he said. "When costs get passed onto buildings, it does not simply come off the bottom line. The bottom line in many cases is already a deficit."

"You're going to lose jobs, that's what's going to happen," Mr. Shaner said.

Mr. Shaner said he was "disappointed" that BUILD was apparently adopting a more confrontational approach to downtown businesses.

The Rev. Douglas I. Miles, a BUILD activist, said joining forces with a labor union was well within the mission of the group's 45 churches.

"We'll enter whatever arena we must to assure justice is served in the city for the least and left out," Mr. Miles said. "It is the church's traditional role, its prophetic calling and what the church has to do to be the church. If anyone has problems with it, let them take it up with our chief organizer, Jesus Christ."

The Baltimore workplace that BUILD and AFSCME are trying to organize has clearly changed. Since 1989, the city has lost 57,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The job trends in Baltimore and elsewhere have been from manufacturing to service, and from full-time with benefits to part-time or temporary with no benefits, said Charles W. McMillion, an economist and president of the Washington-based MBG Information Services.

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