Finally something newsworthy is happening at Camden Yards in September. No, it’s not the Baltimore Orioles limping toward another lackluster finish at their ornate ballpark, famous for selling old-time baseball nostalgia at high-end prices. It’s the scrappy members of the United Workers Association, fighting both the resistance of the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) and the apathy of Orioles owner Peter Angelos for a living wage.
The UWA, a human rights group founded by homeless day laborers in Baltimore, represents 800 low-wage workers who make up the pool of the 100-120 people who keep Camden Yards clean. Stadium workers–the people who clean out the bathroom stalls, sweep up the small mountains of cigarette butts and make the Camden Yards experience as pristine as promised–make poverty wages, just $7 an hour.
Work schedules for stadium workers can vary as well. Some workweeks can be well over forty hours; in other weeks, if the Orioles are on the road, the laborers don’t work at all. Take-home pay varies accordingly, depending on the number of home games in a week and how long the games last. The windfall earned from a game that goes into extra innings can make a real difference in the way a family eats in a given week.
Because they are doing “day labor,” members of the UWA who show up to work are sent home if they’re not needed. The wages are so low, and the job so “flexible,” that some workers live in homeless shelters. One worker was kicked out of public housing because her pay that month couldn’t match the monthly rent.
For three years, stadium workers have been demanding to be paid Baltimore’s official living wage of $9.62 an hour. They soon could even make a claim to more: On October 1 the state’s newly passed living wage law will require state government contractors to pay their employees $11.30 an hour. Both of the city’s stadiums–Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, where the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens play–were paid for on the public dime.
In this solidly blue state, paying stadium workers a living wage should be common sense, but it is not. The MSA contends that stadium workers are not eligible because they are temporary workers. And what makes them temporary? That they don’t have to work “away” games.
The response by UWA members has been to raise public awareness and ask that most basic question to the city of Baltimore: Is this just? They’re conducting panel discussions, protests and concerts, and have even threatened a hunger strike. Along the way they have garnered the support of heavyweights like Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. It’s the kind of grassroots labor organizing that doesn’t make the nightly news shows. But now the UWA and the stadium workers appear close to reaching a settlement.
On Labor Day, the UWA called off the planned hunger strike after hearing that a meeting of the MSA on Thursday could end with very positive results. Frederick Puddester, chairman of the MSA, even remarked to the Baltimore Sun, “[Living wage is] the policy of the state. Can the Stadium Authority argue that they’re exempt on a technicality? Yes, they could. But I don’t plan to take that approach.”