Baltimore Marriott Waterfront workers rally at Columbus Park on Labor Day for living wage

Hour by hour and week by week, Chuck and Amy Altvater are watching their health insurance slip away.

Though the couple have signed up to work full time for the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott, their work assignments consistently add up to less than the 30-hour mark that would qualify them to receive benefits. Now Amy Altvater is 15 weeks pregnant.

“We both work as banquet servers, and we don’t know what we’ll do,” Chuck Altvater said Monday at a Labor Day picnic at Columbus Park, near the Harbor East hotel. “Amy has worked for Marriott for seven years. One job should be enough to live on.”

He was addressing a sympathetic audience of a few dozen co-workers and city officials who turned out to the event organized by Unite Here Local 7 hotel and food services workers. The Altvaters are among a group of workers at the Harbor East hotel who are considering unionizing to seek better pay, increased hours and benefits.

Most celebrations in Baltimore this weekend were designed as end-of-summer celebrations. But the Columbus Park picnic put the “labor” in Labor Day; it was one of seven events held nationwide in cities from Honolulu to Boston that protested the Bethesda-based hotel chain’s treatment of its employees.

Contacted recently about this issue, representatives of the hotel said in a statement they “will continue to respect our employees’ right to choose to be represented or to choose not to be represented.”

Though Baltimore’s event featured water balloons for the kids, face painting and such traditional fare as hamburgers, hot dogs and chips, there was a speakers’ tent under a blue awning, red balloons with the slogan, “One job should be enough” and a bullhorn. The picnic’s location was selected to be close enough for employees to stop by on their lunch hours — and to attract the attention of sightseeing hotel customers.

Advocates of a union effort say that the Marriott won a 25-year tax break from the city based on a promise to increase jobs. But the jobs the company has generated, union organizers say, don’t pay a living wage.

“We’re behind you on this effort,” Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told the group. “We’ve given Marriott $47 million [in tax breaks] since 2001 that could have gone to city schools and the people of Baltimore.”

Clarke was joined at the microphone by Councilmen Bill Henry, John T. Bullock and Kristerfer Burnett.

Jose Mangu Ramirez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, addressed the crowd in Spanish. His remarks were translated by Tracy Lingo, staff director of the Baltimore-based local.

“I have never been able to go home to visit my family,” said Ramirez, who has a job setting up the banquet facilities. He said he has worked for the hotel chain for 20 years.

“I have to use my vacation time to make up for the weeks that I don’t get a full work schedule. Before I came to Baltimore, I worked for Marriott in Puerto Rico. After nine years in Puerto Rico, I have more money in my [savings] account than I have saved during the 11 years I have worked [on the mainland].

“This struggle needs to continue until we win.”

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