A decade ago, food service workers at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall International Airport were getting ready to land a union contract. But then a new developer took over the airport’s concession businesses, and their economic prospects took a nosedive. The workforce has fallen into a familiar rut of poverty wages and dead end jobs, say labor advocates, in glaring contrast to the sky-high profits raked in by their bosses and the overarching retail developer.
Yaseen Abdul-Malik spoke out at a local “Rally for Fair Development” last April about how the airport’s development model had left fast food workers like him stranded:
“It’s not fair that we work on publicly owned property, paid for by tax dollars, our tax dollars, but we are paid barely above minimum wage…. Some of us are paid so low that the only time we get a decent meal is when we are at work.”
According to a new survey published by UNITE HERE, part of an organizing campaign that the union has been pursuing since 2012 against the concession developer AIRMALL USA, the Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is saddled with a “development” scheme that has dragged down the local economy.
The survey found that in the mostly black workforce, black workers were concentrated in the lowest-paying and lowest-status jobs, earning as little as $8.50 per hour. Surveyed blacks “were over six times more likely to work in fast food jobs and over three times more likely to work in back-of-the-house restaurant jobs than their white counterparts.” Whites were overrepresented in management and concentrated in more upscale jobs. While white workers dominated higher-ranked positions, like bartending, just three of the forty concessionaires were run by black-owned local businesses. (AIRMALL, meanwhile, touts its participation in a diversity program to recruit local contractors based in communities of color.)
Previous research by UNITE HERE and Good Jobs First blasted AIRMALL’s management structure, which segments the workforce across individual concession outlets, for promoting precarious jobs in communities already strafed by racial segregation and poverty.
Since the airport is “a state-owned entity” accountable to the public interest, the union argues that “[b]y providing low-wage jobs and presiding over a racial disparity in job outcome among surveyed workers, the BWI concessions program has fallen short in its obligation to the region’s African-American community and the City of Baltimore.”
According to Thomas Cafcas, an analyst with Good Jobs First, UNITE’s latest survey shows that “when government fails to regularly re-evaluate contracts with private entities and to include strong contracting standards…the results can be less than adequate from both a social and economic perspective.”