By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
CORRECTED 3/14, 11:29 a.m. Fourteen
Fifteen people had themselves intentionally arrested on the stone steps of the Maryland State House Thursday — part of a larger group who were protesting the low wages of restaurant and retail workers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
More than 300 BWI employees, and supporters from UNITE HERE, the union which organized the demonstration, circled the sidewalks of the state complex in chilling winds, chanting into bullhorns and swinging signs that read “I am equal.”
The protest was well orchestrated, and Capitol Police were notified in advance of the planned sit-down, so the cops even arranged for a bus — with Virginia license plates — to haul away the handcuffed protesters.
Hourly concession workers have lobbied state leaders, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and the two other members of the Board of Public Works, for more than a year in attempts to secure higher pay, but have yet to see results, according to Meghan Cohorst, spokeswoman for UNITE HERE, which represents employees in the airport, gaming, hotel service, food and transportation industries.
They said that the fault primarily lies in state contractor AirMall USA, BWI’s concessions developer, which sets the workers’ wages.
UNITE HERE aims for O’Malley to put into law the Thurgood Marshall Equal Pay Act, which would require the state to augment workers’ paychecks so that they match the wages of the lowest-paid Maryland Aviation Administration employees, who earn an hourly wage of $13.45.
The median pay for a concession worker now is $8.50 per hour, according to a survey of 180 employees conducted by UNITE HERE. Roughly 1,500 workers are employed in the shops and restaurants of BWI.
Workers get menial compensation, union claims
Cohorst said that BWI workers have not been able to survive on such menial compensation, and also endure long, erratic hours.
Evelyne Diadhiou, 22, said when she proposed unionizing to her managers at BWI’s Silver Diner, the idea was met with resistance.
“My managers told my co-workers that I’m only out to make a lot of money by being part of a union,” she said. “They said that the union pays me to organize … I make no money from this. I just want something that can check my managers.”
Diadhiou earns $3.63 an hour, plus tips, not enough to live on in today’s economy, she said. Often too, she’ll work taxing 12-hour shifts.
Three warnings then arrests
The protest began in the early afternoon and migrated to the Thurgood Marshall memorial in Lawyer’s Mall after a route around the sidewalks of the State House office complex, and then to the State House steps.
After the first warning issued from Maryland Capitol Police Lt. Rebecca Labs that the group was violating the law, most of them dispersed, but 14 remained on the steps, sitting in civil disobedience. After a second and third warning from Labs, they were arrested.
One of the arrestees, Rev. Carletta Allen from Annapolis’ Asbury United Methodist Church, used a cane as two police officers escorted her, uncuffed, down the steps.
Also among them was 37-year-old Baltimore resident Kevin Wheeler, a bartender at Sam Adam’s Brewhouse at the airport. Wheeler said he earns $4.65 an hour. Only if a customer tips can he earn a living, he said.
He sat staunchly before his arrest, tears dripping down his face while he clutched his “I am equal” sign.
“People need to be treated with respect and dignity and they need a wage that proves that,” Wheeler said. “I’m willing to go to jail for that.”
In 2004, the state signed a 12-year deal with AirMall, formerly known as BAA USA, which was eventually extended to 2022. However, state representatives can elect to opt-out in 2017.
Mike Wilzoch, one of the UNITE HERE organizers from Denver, said AirMall could pay its concession workers more, and the state needs to intervene.
“There’s tons of money out there and having workers go on assistance, be evicted from their homes and be disrespected on the jobs is unacceptable to us,” Wilzoch said.