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The Nose

Come Together

Posted 6/13/2001

Some 450 placard-waving low-wage workers packed Gillis Memorial Church in Park Heights on June 5 in a bid to restore jobs and services they fear will fall under the blade of Mayor Martin O'Malley's fiscal-year 2002 budget. But it wasn't the by-now rote pleas to keep libraries open, public schools standing, and city-employed security guards and custodians from being privatized that struck the Nose about the rally. Plans to shutter libraries and schools and lay off workers have been in the works for months now (years in the case of libraries and schools), and they have little to do with the mayor's pending budget anyway. What caught our attention was the grass-roots mobilization afoot--the pre-meeting plastering of neighborhoods with 1,000 posters, the mass mailing to 10,000 homes, the phone bank that dialed 6,000 people, the repeated message from the podium that hundreds of Citizen Joes and Janes united shall overcome. Could this be the sound of clergy banding together and neighborhoods coalescing into a coalition, an echo of the long-since-faded big noise the Nose thought we heard during the election summer of 1999?

Our curiosity was further piqued by an off-the-cuff comment by Mitchell Klein, an organizer for the Baltimore chapter of the national activist group ACORN (Association of Communities for Reform Now). "O'Malley is strengthening his opposition by cutting neighborhoods," Klein said, surveying the crowd. Turns out this wasn't the first time these activists had conspired; the so-called budget meeting was part of a larger--and we hesitate to use the word, given the post-election sputtering of similar groups less than two years back--movement underway.

Prompted by a shared sense that O'Malley is listening a little too closely to his white-collared supporters, Baltimore neighborhood activists and labor unions joined forces early this spring in what they're calling an unprecedented partnership. These factions of the city's proletariat have collaborated in the past on voter-registration and living-wage campaigns, but the formalized alliance--complete with its own name and staff--seems something of a first. ACORN, the Association of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the City Union of Baltimore, and the Baltimore Teachers Union have formed the Committee to Save Baltimore Neighborhoods, under which they'll pool members and dollars to press for government solutions to problems faced by low-wage workers and low-income neighborhoods.

It all came about when Baltimoreans began balking at the cuts in jobs and services O'Malley's 2002 budget demands, says Carma Halterman, a spokesperson for AFSCME's Local 44. "We realized our members are their members," she says of the municipal-worker union's new neighborhood allies. "They live in Baltimore City, most are African-American, and they live in low-income or marginal neighborhoods."

"It's not just that people are pissed off. People are organizing," Klein adds. "What we decided to do was treat this [budget] like an election. That's something [ACORN] never would have been able to do alone."

Indeed, just as the mayor tapped the budget to further his political agenda of crime reduction, the ACORN/labor group is using it to rile the masses and put politicians on notice. Thick in the air at Gillis Memorial were hints about job security--O'Malley's, come 2004. A heartening show of non-election-year outrage, perhaps, but one that leads the Nose to ask: What will keep this community uprising from fizzling once the budget is signed, like other community uprisings built around a specific election or issue have fizzled before?

The answer: a full agenda that transcends the dollars-and-cents budget decisions, committee members say, citing common goals on housing, education, and employment issues. Again, encouraging, but the Nose has heard that one before.

Meanwhile, the ACORN/union committee isn't the only labor-community group raising an eyebrow at the mayor's direction. A "strategic initiative" of area labor, community, and religious groups convened by the AFL-CIO has hired a Washington think tank to produce a counter-report to the pro-privatization manuals penned for O'Malley last year by two local business groups, the Greater Baltimore Committee and Presidents' Roundtable--the books from which the mayor has been calling most of his plays. AFSCME and ACORN, partners in this initiative, see in the upcoming report a chance to rally the troops again.

"Most of the people who live in this city are low- and moderate-income, and they don't see a plan for the future for their neighborhoods in [O'Malley's] plan, which is to balance the city's budget on their backs. So it's just like a giant slap in the face, these cuts," Klein said in an interview several days after the rally. "Last week's turnout and the way people are feeling about the city is definitely in direct response to O'Malley."

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