11 set hunger strike over pay at stadium

Living wage sought for cleaners at Yard

August 16, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN REPORTER

Luis Larin once fasted six days to protest rising electricity rates in his native Guatemala.

Now a day laborer in Baltimore, Larin is among 11 current and former temporary workers who will begin a hunger strike Sept. 3 to secure higher wages for those who pick up the trash at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"We think it's the only way we'll get attention and get a living wage for workers," Larin said through a Spanish interpreter.

The hunger strike announced yesterday is the latest move by the United Workers Association to pressure the Maryland Stadium Authority to meet its demand for better pay.

Camden Yard workers typically earn $7 an hour. They're asking for at least Baltimore's living wage of $9.62, even though the city's minimum wage doesn't apply to the workers since the stadium is state owned.

The stadium authority has contracted janitorial services to a Michigan firm, which in turn engages subcontractors that hire the temporary workers. The janitorial contract expires in January.

United Workers Association, a human rights organization founded in Baltimore by homeless day laborers, represents 800 cleaners at Camden Yards. More day laborers are employed at the ballpark than anywhere else in the city, according to the association.

The association called the hunger strike in the belief that the stadium authority won't meet the UWA's Sept. 1 deadline to reach a solution. The hunger strikers will consume only vitamins and water.

Frederick W. Puddester, the authority's chairman, said the state agency has made a "good faith" effort to address the UWA's concerns.

Puddester said the authority can't meet the UWA's deadline because it has yet to sort out and review several factors, including pending regulations for the new state "living-wage" law, which goes into effect in October.

The law, which requires state government contractors in the Baltimore area to pay their employees $11.30 an hour, appears to exempt temporary workers such as the stadium employees.

The state agency also is seeking additional information on UWA's proposal to create a worker-owned cooperative that would hire employees to clean Camden Yards, Puddester said.

"We've very open to their ideas," he said. "And we're going to go ahead to work through the process over the next several months and come to a decision."

The workers are employed by subcontractors hired by Knight Facilities Management Inc., of Saginaw, Mich., which holds the janitorial services contract with the stadium authority. The day workers also clean M&T Bank Stadium during the Ravens' season.

The workers say the hunger strike will draw attention to their cause. Several meetings with the stadium authority and rallies and other protests failed to produce the desired living wage.

The 11 hunger strikers say they will abstain from food until their demands are met.

UWA leaders say the workers will receive a medical exam to ensure that they are healthy enough to participate.

Rose Menustik, a UWA organizer and a former Camden Yards worker who will participate in the hunger strike, said medical professionals would be on call.

Workers acknowledged the hunger strike will be tough, but they say they're willing to put up with the discomfort.

"We're willing to sacrifice food and anything else to get people to listen," said Robert Graham, 39, of Baltimore, who has worked at Camden Yards for the past two baseball seasons. Graham and others say they will not be able to work during the hunger strike.

Workers plan to establish a site outside Camden Yards to stage the protest around the clock.

In the meantime, UWA leaders and workers arrived at Ocean City last night to press state leaders attending a conference of the Maryland Association of Counties to include stadium cleaners in the state's living-wage law.

The group is organizing other events, such as a vigil and concert next month.

Larin, 24, of Fells Point, said he hopes the hunger strike here will bring change as it did in Guatemala.

"They didn't raise the electricity rate, and the government realized that they were wrong and it would make the people poorer," he said. "I hope to see the same kind of success. I want to help set a precedent where low-wage workers will be respected and poor people in the working class will get a living wage."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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