Is BUILD trying to tear down?

June 22, 1994|By Stephen J. K. Walters

SINCE the 1970s, Baltimore has spawned an impressive family of urban renewal strategies, from dollar homes to the new-old Camden Yards. This summer brings another: A coalition of preachers and union organizers, working to save service workers from what they see as the indignity of low-wage employment. It may succeed all too well.

The partnership links Maryland's largest public employees' union the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- and a church-based civic group -- Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development -- in an effort to unionize custodial workers in the hotels, restaurants and offices that ring Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Such jobs commonly pay little more than the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour, without benefits. The coalition's goal is a "living wage," which it defines as $8 an hour, for all full-time workers.

The strategy hinges, in part, on role reversal: Labor leaders step into the pulpits and preach, and preachers twist arms and carry placards. The union's president, Gerald W. McEntee, for example, drew "amens" at one church by promising that the coalition will "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."

And one minister defended the union-church alliance by asserting that "it is the church's traditional role, its prophetic calling. If anyone has any problems with it, let them take it up with our chief organizer, Jesus Christ."

This is just the shot in the arm unions need. When organizers talk about "taking what's ours" or "using the strike weapon," some folks worry about what that's going to do to job security. But ministerial pronouncements that God looks for the union label are getting the troops fired up. This is no ordinary unionization drive; it's a holy war.

Question is, will this war destroy Baltimore's downtown in order to save it?

History isn't very reassuring on this score. In fact, it looks like we're about to do to the service sector what we did to the manufacturing sector a few short decades ago.

During and after World War II, steel mills, auto assembly plants and many small factories were the foundation of the economy in Baltimore and most other cities of the Northeast. But then the labor cartel took hold and priced many of the workers in these industries right out of their jobs.

It didn't happen overnight, of course. Most of the affected firms ,, had huge amounts of money tied up in fixed plant and equipment and strove mightily to stay competitive despite each new round of wage hikes, cumbersome work rules and government-mandated benefits. But slowly, surely, jobs moved away. (Witness the impending closing of the state's last London Fog plants.) Now the menacing hulks of countless abandoned factories rest just beyond Baltimore's harbor attractions.

From their vantage point in the ivory tower, academics saw this trend as inevitable and labeled it "deindustrialization." It was nothing of the kind: It was deunionization. Jobs that disappeared in high-cost "union states" had a funny way of reappearing in more affordable areas.

So it is that, since 1967, Maryland has lost 105,000 manufacturing jobs, while Virginia has gained nearly as many. In the same period, manufacturing employment fell 45 percent in New York but increased 66 percent in Florida. New Jersey is down 33 percent, but Texas is up 40 percent. In 1967, Connecticut had 13 percent more manufacturing jobs than Georgia; today Georgia has 60 percent more than Connecticut.

The big losers are all states that have done the most to make unionization easy and labor costly. The big winners are usually states with right-to-work laws that temper union militancy.

It is in such circumstances that entrepreneurs, reassured that they are less likely to be taken hostage to their fixed capital, take the risks that create jobs.

This raises some uncomfortable questions for those who would use churches to unionize service workers, in Baltimore and other cities grappling with the problems of poverty and its byproducts. How can they be sure that history will not repeat itself? Will their efforts to bring dignity to low-wage workers bring, instead, the indignity of unemployment?

Clearly, there will be short-run gains for unionized service workers. The hotels, shops and offices in renewed urban areas, like the factories of decades ago, cannot be moved; there are hostages to be taken. But the market for tourists, shoppers and tenants is a national -- indeed, international -- one. When Baltimore becomes too expensive, many service-sector jobs will move elsewhere.

This poses no great moral dilemma for the unionists, of course. They represent current workers, not prospective ones.

But what about the ministers? They think longer-term; they represent a city's collective soul. When they stop and ponder history, perhaps they will ask: Is this crusade really God's work?

Stephen J.K. Walters teaches economics at Loyola College in Maryland.

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