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Mobtown Beat

Temporary Injustice

Union Tries To Organize Temp Laborers At Camden Yards

Jefferson Jackson Steele
GOOD ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS: Ernest Lindsay (center) discusses plans for an upcoming protest at Camden Yards with fellow UWA union members.

By Chris Landers | Posted 6/27/2007

The men and women began arriving at 2 p.m., and half an hour later there were around 30 of them, gathered in the shade by Camden Yards' Gate B. The crowds weren't scheduled to arrive for hours to watch the Washington Nationals hand the O's a 7-4 beat-down.

During a baseball game's nine innings, fans generate a lot of trash. The people at Gate B are there at the stadium to pick up after them.

Veronica Dorsey took the No. 3 bus from Northwood to get here. Phyllis Ockimey came down after her hospital job was finished. Last Saturday she was turned away because she was wearing her slippers from the hospital. Today she's worried about her nonregulation shorts, which she wore instead of pants, but it's hot out.

If she gets in, she'll be sweeping up peanut shells or mopping up spilled beer and cleaning the bathrooms. Terry Arrington, 47, will pick up the cardboard for recycling then vacuum the locker rooms, as he's been doing for four seasons at the Yard. At around 3 p.m., they all cluster around a man with a clipboard to sign in for a job that will begin shortly after 4 o'clock and last until 10 or 10:30 at night.

In the meantime, the workers wait, smoke cigarettes, and talk with the yellow-shirted organizers from the United Workers Association (UWA) who hope to better the lot of the temp workers at the stadium. They are a familiar sight here--Ockimey greets organizer Rose Menustick with a hug--and the complaints of the workers are just as familiar. One of the common complaints is the waiting period; workers say they are obliged to show up early if they want to work, but they don't punch in until they pass through the stadium gates two hours later.

The United Workers Association, started in a Baltimore homeless shelter in 2002, began trying to unionize temp workers at Camden Yards the following year. Cleaners at the stadium are hired on a daily basis depending on need. UWA, which organizes workers in a variety of temporary-labor fields, has focused particularly on the stadiums because of the large numbers of workers involved.

Executives of Knight Facilities Management, the Saginaw, Mich.-based company that took over the Camden Yards contract in 2004 and which has been a target of UWA protests, declined to be quoted for this article, citing the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations. They say the claims of the United Workers are exaggerated, and that Knight has nothing to do with how (or how much) the workers are actually paid. The cleaning subcontracts are competitively bid to staffing agencies, they say, and the contract goes to the temp agency with the lowest bid.

Jeannette Gomez, owner of White Marsh-based Next Day Staffing, one of Knight's subcontractors at Camden Yards, says the wages are determined by her contract with Knight, and that she receives $10 an hour per person. Gomez says the wages begin at $7 for the workers, but go as high as $15. Gomez, who started her business in 2003, takes offense at accusations by UWA that she is not treating her workers properly.

"People can say a lot of stuff," she says. "That doesn't mean it's the truth. Every time I ask them to bring proof, they don't. Show me the proof."

Gomez says she knows what it's like to struggle on little money.

"The first year we opened, my kids didn't have Christmas presents," she recalls. "They talk about me like I'm some kind of princess or something. I've been through having no money. It's not fair for someone to come and say I don't respect people. I know how much I've worked for my company, and I respect the workers more than anybody."

This year, as it has in the past, the UWA is focusing on trying to get workers a "living wage" of $9.06 an hour. Baltimore City enacted a living-wage law for certain contract employees in 1994, and UWA uses that number as a goal, although stadium workers are not covered by the law. In July the hourly rate is set to increase to $9.62 an hour, closer to what UWA argues is necessary for the temp workers to get by.

"We do a lot of work in there, man," says Arrington. "I've been down here every day, faithfully, working for this $7. Nine dollars? I'd love that."

Ockiney says she keeps coming back because of the pay schedule--she gets paid every two weeks at the hospital, every week here. Every bit helps, she says, for the savings she's building to buy a house for herself and her two kids.

"By the time you add up your bus fare," says Dorsey, " you're not making any money. You're clearing your bus fare, and if you eat, you're clearing your lunch money."

Dorsey was a city employee for 12 years, she says, until an aneurism left her temporarily blind. She receives a small pension from the city, which goes to cover living expenses for the house she shares with her father. She comes down to the stadium for extra money.

The unsteady, day-to-day nature of the work makes it difficult to employ traditional union-organizing methods, although some still have visions of a large-scale strike.

"If we just stand up," Arrington says, "and don't go in those gates, then those gray shirts and those supervisors would have to get on the floor and do all the work." He laughs at the thought. "They would lose so much money up in here."

UWA has instead focused on getting temp agencies to sign a "code of conduct" that allows the association to bring worker complaints to temp-agency management. In some cases, its efforts have met with resistance--Next Day Staffing filed for a peace order against UWA organizer Todd Cherkis following a demonstration at the company's Broadway office. Gomez says UWA organizers were disruptive. The workers responded by massing outside (less Cherkis) and delivering a "workers' rights petition." The request for a restraining order was later dismissed, and Gomez says she is willing to work with the union.

"Right now we don't have any problems," she says. "We're going to allow them to come to the office and talk to people," as long as organizers are not "aggressive with our employees."

Another barrier, according to UWA organizer Greg Rosenthal and other workers and organizers, is the racially fragmented nature of the temp-labor industry. The following night, as Washington again beat Baltimore, the nighttime workers arrive. In contrast to the daytime cleaners, who are mostly African-American, the night crowd that makes its way off the buses from the Next Day office in Hyattsville is predominantly Latino. One of the other worker complaints that UWA has taken up is the practice of charging for these bus rides to work--workers say they pay $6 a head out of their paychecks for the agency-supplied transportation. Next Day's Gomez says she buses workers from Hyattsville to spread the work around to her employees, and that the transportation fee is determined by the bus company, which she hires to help those without a way to get to work. She says the busing costs within Baltimore, which previously had been a flat $6, will be lowered in the future. She supplies the transportation only to those who need it, she says, allowing them to get to work without having to pay up front for a bus ride or other way to work.

Luis Larin, a 24-year-old organizer from Guatemala, hands out fliers in Spanish to the 50 or so people gathered on the sidewalks. Larin, who says he studied for years to become a computer-systems engineer in his native country, is on crutches from his stint at a metal company--he says three steel poles fell out of a truck and onto his foot.

"Obviously I studied for a better future, not to come to the U.S.," he says in broken English and Spanish translated by a fellow organizer. "But the conditions in Guatemala don't allow us to have a better future.

"These are the two most exploited races," he says, "African-American because of skin color, and Latinos because of lack of documents. There exists competition to have the best of these bad jobs. It obviously works, because if you divide the workers, you win the battle. If you don't unite, things don't get any better."

As people begin to filter out of the stadium, leaving to avoid the rush at the end of the ninth inning, organizer Cherkis wades into the crowd of workers and lays down his rap. He asks a group of young men from Baltimore what time they arrived for work at the agency offices across town. Nine o'clock, one worker offers. It's half past 10 now, and the workers won't enter the stadium for another hour.

"That's on them," Cherkis says. "You should get paid for your time."

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