Baltimore's Ride the Ducks amphibious tours made their last run through the streets and waterways of the city on Monday, according to the company.
Bob Salmon, vice president for marketing for Ride the Ducks, which is owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, says financial concerns led the company, which runs or licenses similar tours in six other cities, to shutter its Baltimore operation.
"We've been in Baltimore since 2002, and it's been our most challenging area since we've opened," Salmon says. "With an economy like we're in today, we're watching how we spend our money. Not just in one market, but across the board, and as we looked at Baltimore, [we] didn't see the potential there."
Salmon says the company had decided it needed to add equipment and build another ramp to put the boats in Baltimore's harbor, and that the city offered less return on investment than others, such as Philadelphia and San Francisco.
"We didn't see the long-term potential of Baltimore, and we saw that other markets in which we operate had greater potential," Salmon says.
Others, however, say the company's move was timed to squelch a workers' vote on joining the steelworkers union. Jeanne Williams, nicknamed "Captain Smiley," has worked as a Ride the Ducks boat captain since 2003. She says safety concerns led other captains and mechanics to ask the United Steelworkers Union to represent them in negotiations with Ride the Ducks. She says long hours and neglected maintenance on the boats gave them concerns over passenger safety.
"We sought union representation from the United Steel Workers," she says, "not for money, but because we were concerned for the safety of the vehicles, ourselves, and our passengers. Management had ignored that. . . . I think they clearly got the message that we fully intended to vote for the union, and we would win the vote, so this was their last-ditch effort to stop that."
Williams says she and other employees learned of the closing Tuesday morning, when they received a UPS package outlining severance benefits, which she described as "generous," that included an agreement not to speak publicly about the circumstances of the closing. "I'm obviously not going to be signing that," she says.
Company vice president Salmon says that the closure of the Baltimore operation had been under discussion before the company was contacted by the union, denies that there were problems with the boats, and says passengers and crew were never placed at risk. A call to Baltimore's Coast Guard office to check for incident reports had not been returned as of this writing.
Ballots for the union election were scheduled to be mailed on Friday, according to Wayne Gold, the regional director of the National Labor Review Board. Gold says the company and workers agreed to the election in August, and while he was aware the company had closed its Baltimore operation, no decision had been made on whether to continue with the election.
Phil Ornot, district organizing coordinator for the United Steelworkers union, says he was contacted by Baltimore duck boat captains about safety issues on the boats, and filed a petition with the Review Board. Ornot says he attempted to speak with company representatives but wasn't given an opportunity.
"The company is claiming economic conditions here, tourism is down, all this kind of stuff," Ornot says. "Even if that was the case, in many places we sit down and we work with employers who have problems. The unions fight to keep jobs, and sometimes you have to sacrifice, and just hope for better times. The company never gave these people that opportunity, or gave United Steelworkers the opportunity to sit down and discuss that.
"It's just a typical story of a bigger company that is going to fight, and not let these people have a voice," Ornot says. "Their issues were not monetary at all—it was not benefits, it was not health care, not pension. All it was was over safety."