A Living WageThe people who do some of the most thankless...


January 07, 1995

A Living Wage

The people who do some of the most thankless jobs in Baltimore -- those who clean the toilets in downtown offices, those who sweep under the bleachers at the new, publicly subsidized baseball park, those who make the beds in the hotels and those who mop the floors at public schools -- are making economic and urban history.

With the help of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a city-wide church-based community organization, and the American Federation of State, County and Federal Employees, a public employees union, these workers have successfully pushed for an ordinance that will require companies to pay a living wage for all work done under city contracts.

In Baltimore's case that means $6.10 an hour next year, inching up to $7.70 over the next four years. The ramifications of such a measure -- the first of its kind in the nation -- are enormous.

The ordinance takes on even greater significance at a time when Democrats and Republicans are spending most of their time debating how to best force poor people to work, while ignoring the reality that much honest work does not pay a living wage in this country. These same politicians also ignore the fact that most poor families are headed by a low-wage worker rather than a welfare recipient.

Why are "the working poor" of Baltimore leading the way? For Blacka Wright, a part-time hotel housekeeper who earns only $5.25 an hour, for Charles Garrison, who cleans high school cafeterias for $4.25, and for hundreds of other low-wage workers the challenge to reform their work lives came when BUILD approached them and asked if they wanted to organize for power.

Since the late Seventies, when the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of 45 organizations in 18 states, helped a group of pastors and lay leaders begin their church-based organization, BUILD has enjoyed major political victories.

BUILD has built 300 "Nehemiah" homes for first-time buyers and secured hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in scholarships for Baltimore City high school graduates through the "Commonwealth Agreement."

Even with these major successes, BUILD churches, mostly African-American congregations in the inner city, were becoming increasingly frustrated by the amount of time and energy they were spending feeding and housing low-wage workers through their social service ministries.

Change started two years ago, when the churches asked the-low wage workers if they were interested in a political alliance in addition to another meal at the soup kitchen.

BUILD teamed up with AFSCME, the largest public employee union in the city, to begin organizing the working poor. A new organization was born last May drawing upon the experience of the church, the IAF and progressive labor leaders in AFSCME. The new city-wide workers association is called the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee.

This new organization is being built on tested organizing principles: (1) don't do for people what they can do for themselves; (2) trust that people will make good choices for themselves and their families if given the opportunity, and (3) all change comes from pressure or the threat of pressure.

The enactment of the living wage ordinance by the Baltimore City Council and signed by the mayor is the first victory in what promises to be a tough campaign to hold corporations that receive public subsidy accountable to the public.

SSC, BUILD and AFSCME are saying that the billions of dollars of public subsidy garnered by private developers must be tied to jobs that pay a living wage.

As one pastor put it at a BUILD rally, "Why is it that subsidy for rich corporations is always called an investment, while subsidy for the poor is called welfare?

"Public subsidy is public subsidy and must come tied to public obligation."

The propositions that work must pay, that there is dignity in all work, that economic revitalization of central cities must be tied to living wage jobs, and that the public subsidy lavished upon private corporations must come with public responsibility, are being tested in Baltimore.

In a time of gushing political rhetoric about individual responsibility, often times more tied to hypocrisy and meanness than the reality of the working poor, the members of SSC are taking control of their own lives and pointing the way to significant welfare reform; namely, work that pays a living wage.

Arnie Graf

Rev. Vernon Dobson

Jonathan Lange



The writers represent IAF and BUILD.

Election Blues

I voted for Parris Glendening and now I am mad at myself.

In the primary, I voted for Ellen Sauerbrey. Then I found that I did not agree with her stand on gun control and tax decreases without a way to pay for it.

Mr. Glendening said he was for controls on automatic weapons and said that the state could not afford the tax cuts proposed by Mrs. Sauerbrey.

Even before taking the oath of office, he made a 180-degree turn and now says he will not propose controls on automatic weapons.

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