Labor leaders preach, and preachers urge union solidarity

May 23, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

The president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) came to Baltimore last night to "seek higher ground for low-paid workers."

Gerald W. McEntee told a packed Knox Presbyterian Church in East Baltimore that a new association of low-wage workers here would "build a bonfire at the bottom and let the heat rise to the top, and when they feel the heat, they will see the light."

The meeting launched a joint drive by AFSCME, the largest public employees union in Maryland, and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based civic group, to organize the "invisible" workers who clean Baltimore's hotels, offices and schools.

Some 150 workers of the newly formed Solidarity Sponsoring Committee attended the meeting, a cheerleading session in which labor leaders sounded like preachers and vice versa. The workers pledged to double their numbers by October, when they plan to hold a convention.

"This won't happen overnight," said Blacka Wright, a $5.25-an-hour hotel housekeeper, "but today we stop complaining about history and start making it."

Valerie Bell, who is paid $4.25 an hour to clean a public school by a private firm under city contract, called her job "plain old city-sponsored poverty."

"Elected officials, beware," Ms. Bell told a group of City Council members in the audience. "Baltimore's low-wage workers will no longer sit on the sidelines of political activity."

The Solidarity Sponsoring Committee plans to seek portable benefits for part-time and temporary workers, to work for safer streets downtown, and to lobby for legislation to regulate wages for service employees doing work under city contract.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is sponsoring that legislation and challenging Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in the 1995 mayoral race, got a large ovation at the meeting.

Baltimore church leaders issued a statement affirming the workers' "right to organize" without reprisals.

"The church supports not only workers' right to pray before work, but also to be paid a just wage after work," Bishop John H. Ricard, urban vicar of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, told the workers last night.

The drive grew out of a "social compact" campaign that BUILD began in April 1993 to demand that downtown hotels and other businesses raise wages, enhance training programs and offer better career opportunities to workers.

The workers that BUILD and AFSCME aim to organize are a moving target. Mostly part-time or temporary employees, they tend to have a high turnover rate and often work for small companies.

BUILD has argued that because public subsidies have made Inner Harbor development possible, downtown businesses should be obliged to create jobs that enable families to support themselves without further government subsidy. BUILD defines a "living wage" as at least $16,000 a year, or about $7.70 an hour for a full-time worker.

The activist group contends that most jobs produced in the Inner Harbor area have been dead-end positions paying the minimum wage or slightly more -- jobs for hotel housekeepers, office custodians and fast-food cooks.

In response to the "social compact" campaign, downtown hotels have helped set up a hospitality management program at Southwestern High School.

But, pointing out that the Inner Harbor area has been one of the few economic bright spots in a city that has lost 57,000 jobs since 1989, neither business people nor politicians have shown much enthusiasm for across-the-board wage increases that could make Baltimore a more expensive place to do business.

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