Baltimore’s United Workers Disrupt Christmas Shopping, Demand Stable Jobs, Better Wages

Kari Lydersen

On December 10, Christmas shoppers at the Gallery Mall in Baltimore were interrupted by chanting and thousands of fliers fluttering from balconies of higher floors, where a banner was also unfurled.

The fliers called on one of the country’s largest mall-development companies, Gallery Mall owner General Growth Properties (GGP), to provide stable jobs, better wages, benefits and decent conditions for thousands of workers at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Harborplace mall, a tourist magnet across the street.

The protesters with the group United Workers also peeled off their winter jackets to reveal T‑shirts demanding the country’s second-largest mall developer act now to turn what the group has dubbed a Poverty Zone” into a Human Rights Zone.” Inner Harbor worker Robert Jones, 23, told In These Times:

We hope they are listening, we hope they are getting our message – we’ve been trying for the past two years to get in touch with them. We just want them to hear us out.

The action came exactly two years after United Workers launched its campaign on behalf of and involving about 1,000 Inner Harbor restaurant and retail workers, who are typically laid off or see their hours cut drastically after the summer season; and generally earn low wages and few benefits, while also complaining of wage theft, sexual harassment and other problems.

Since sending letters to company executives, visiting GGP’s headquarters in Chicago in September 2010 and demanding meetings with the company, United Workers leadership organizer Ashley Hufnagel said GGP has continued to ignore the campaign. (See my past blog about the campaign here.)

Five days after the action at the Gallery Mall, United Workers members and supporters showed up at Towson Town Center in suburban Baltimore, another outlet owned by GGP. This time they were met with police squad cars and private security telling them they could not do a flier drop or protest.

Hufnagel told In These Times:

There were eight cop cars, a paddy wagon, tons of police. They were blocking us from even entering — police everywhere, security guards, a helicopter. The general manager of the center was waiting outside the doors; as we arrived he told us that we couldn’t drop fliers, couldn’t go in with signs, couldn’t go in with banners, couldn’t give fliers to people – that it was against their code of conduct.

After retreating and regrouping, a handful of United Workers representatives handed out fliers in the mall, and they rescheduled the action — without advance publicity — for the next day, December 16. (See video here).

United Workers alleges Inner Harbor restaurants have violated the law, including when the ESPN Zone restaurant – where Jones worked – laid off workers with just a week or two notice before closing in summer 2010. Instead of organizing individually at each of the many restaurants and retail outlets in the Inner Harbor, the group is demanding a comprehensive labor rights and wages agreement from the mall developer.

Jones worked at the Hard Rock Café last summer for about six months after being laid off from ESPN Zone, but his hours at the Hard Rock were cut to almost nothing in October. He told In These Times:

When they only put you down for one or two days a week you’re not making any money, it’s not enough for food, rent and other miscellaneous things. When things are slow the more people they let go the more money that they make.

But you should be able to work all year round. The way the economy is, it’s kind of tough in the restaurant business because there are a lot less people spending money on restaurants and going out to eat, spending money on shopping. But that’s even more reason people should be able to keep their jobs through these tough economic times.

Hufnagel told In These Times:

We documented many cases of wage theft at Inner Harbor, from the Cheesecake Factory to Hooters to Five Guys. There were cases of workers being clocked out while they’re still working – one to two hours at end of their shift really adds up.

She said that one Cheesecake Factory worker, later fired after missing work when she contracted pneumonia, is owed more than $1,200 for time worked after she was clocked out each day. She said workers at Hooters who didn’t have bank accounts were paid with debit cards, subjecting them to ATM fees every time they withdrew their money. And as is reportedly frequently the case in the restaurant industry, she said restaurants didn’t pay tipped employees enough to equal minimum wage as required when business is slow.

Hufnagel and Jones said that at both Gallery Mall and Towson they received curious and sympathetic reactions from shoppers and mall workers, who helped clean up the fliers and joined in the chanting.

Early in the new year the group plans to again travel to GGP’s headquarters in Chicago, where the company owns the famous Water Tower Place mall. Along the way, they’ll be visiting GGP-owned malls for flier drops and actions in many locations.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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