March 14, 2014

Union protesters arrested at State House

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Fifteen Unite Here protesters stage sit-down on State House steps.

Unite Here protesters stage sit-down on State House steps.

By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

Jeremy@MarylandReporter.com

Fifteen Unite Here protesters stage sit-down on State House steps.

Unite Here Protesters in front of governor’s residence.

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.

Fifteen Unite Here protesters stage sit-down on State House steps.

Kevin Wheeler, left, and another protester are handcuffed by Capitol Police.

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.”

Rev. Carletta Allen from Annapolis’ Asbury United Methodist Church, used a cane as two police officers escorted her

Rev. Carletta Allen from Annapolis’ Asbury United Methodist Church used a cane as two police officers escorted her.

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.

  • abby_adams

    Here we go again. Just who do these people think wiil provide the state with the “augmented” portion of the wage increase they seek? Oh I know the “government”. And just who provides the State & Feds with the $$ to pass around? Oveburdened MD taxpayers that’s who! I don’t have a problem with these people picketing their employers but please don’t put EVERY MD taxpayer on the hook for yet another entitlement.

    • cameron

      This demonstration is necessary. It brings to light the intolerable situation of low wages. Its not as if this problem cannot be fixed. The fact is some people have too much and others have too little. The community should be outraged that those with too much are so greedy. Their greed shows up in the community in the form of forclosures, crime, and poverty.

  • joe

    Why doesn’t “the union” augment these protesting worker’s wages with those funds that would be given to Democratic politicians?

  • Dale McNamee

    So, they get their sought after wage increase…I wonder how thery’ll feel if their hours get cut or they get laid-off due to business falling off as consumers cut back on their spending ?

  • R Ferraro

    I always love to read the apologists for low wages, who make the argument that a raise in pay for low wage workers will always cause so many problems for business, but never argue that others in society who get paid well are causing problems for business. If it is true that a company cannot afford to pay a living wage, then I must assume the company is a failure. I’m old enough to remember when a much larger % of the population was paid a living wage. Contrary to the claims of low wage apologists, it did not drive businesses into ruin and it did not drive prices so high that people could not afford to patronize those businesses. What actually happened was that when a larger % of workers were paid decently, there was more money for all businesses and they thrived. There were more customers and those customers had more money to spend. It is an economic fact that the more money goes to low wage workers, the better it is for the local economy, because those workers spend almost all of their money in the local economy. Not true however, when the owners or executives get a higher %. When they get higher incomes as a result of shorting their workers, much of that extra money goes outside of the local economy; ie., travelling to other countries, vacation homes, investments on Wall Street, etc.

  • ZealousPococurante

    Airmall does NOT set the wage rates. The businesses at the airport are owned and operated by regular people off the street and NOT by Airmall. What a load of lies written in this article. Whether working at the airport or off of Route 170, the pay remains the same. So, why target the airport? It’s all about the Union’s greed for money so their executives can drive $60K+ cars.