Schmoke backs workers

June 26, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pledged during a packed meeting yesterday to break city government contracts with any company that threatens or intimidates service workers who are trying to improve their working conditions.

"It's absolutely outrageous," the mayor told about 150 cheering service workers at Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue. "We will not tolerate it. . . . It's not part of the city of Baltimore."

The mayor, invited to speak by a new group of low-paid workers calling itself the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee, was responding to complaints from employees of Johnson Controls Inc. that their jobs were threatened if they attended the meeting.

"That employer must think he's in the 19th century, not the 20th century," the mayor told the crowd. Some units of Johnson Controls have contracts with the city to provide cafeteria, security and maintenance workers at 12 city schools.

Bobby Parham, a project manager for the company in Baltimore, said "many untrue allegations" have been made against it. He said the company had made no threats.

"None whatsoever," he said. "I'm no fool. You don't threaten employees." Workers from a number of other companies also described incidents of harassment by employers because of the committee's work.

"A lot of us have been coerced or intimidated by our employers because of these meetings," said Valerie Bell, who works for $4.25 an hour without benefits at Southern High School for Broadway Services Inc. "It really helps us that the mayor is with us."

After the meeting, Mr. Schmoke said he would contact managers at Johnson Controls to state that threats against workers won't be tolerated.

"I have to get their side of the story," he said. "But we'll make it very clear" any future intimidation by any company will be penalized. "I consider that a breach of contract," he said.

Workers attending the rally -- most of them custodians, cafeteria workers and hotel housekeepers -- were buoyed by the mayor's words.

"I can go to work without fearing I'll be kicked out," said Barbara Wright, a Johnson Controls employee.

"He made me feel I have more grounds I can stand on," said Larry Brown, a school custodian who said he also had been threatened.

Carol Reckling, a Solidarity Committee organizer and member of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), said the mayor came out strongly for workers' rights.

"This was excellent," she said after the meeting. "This is the first time he's made commitments with teeth in them."

The meeting was the second of the fledgling committee, an association of service workers striving to improve wages, benefits and working conditions. Its creation was an effort by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and BUILD, a church-based civic group.

To pressure the mayor to take direct steps to push the group's agenda, organizers prepared a four-point questionnaire and pressed Mr. Schmoke to take a stand on each issue.

The mayor guaranteed he'd back workers' right to organize and penalize companies trying to thwart worker participation. He agreed to sign into law by October a "prevailing wage" ordinance that would require pay for service workers involved in city government work that is higher than the federally mandated minimum wage.

The mayor would not commit to specific increases for workers on city contracts. But he said the ordinance would address improved wages. The Solidarity Committee has asked that companies doing business with the city increase wages to $7.70 an hour over several years.

BUILD has argued that businesses benefiting from public subsidies and city contracts should be obliged to create jobs that enable families to support themselves.

The mayor also agreed to make an unannounced visit to investigate complaints by custodians on city contracts.

Some workers at yesterday's meeting described their conditions nearly intolerable.

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