In April, Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development announced its determination to forge a "social compact" that would link public subsidies to improved job opportunities for blacks. As its first target, the coalition selected the city's hotels.
"The most celebrated example of public subsidy in Baltimore -- recipient of a 30-year stream of well over two billion city, state and federal dollars -- is the downtown complex of hotels, entertainment, retail and office facilities," BUILD said. It demanded that the hotels "provide a living family wage," improved promotion opportunities and "a pool of funds" to enhance benefits and training.
The hotel industry was listening: An Academy of Hospitality at Southwest High; hospitality courses at the Baltimore City Community College and Morgan State. Since summer, though, talks have been at an impasse; BUILD activists now threaten to "march" on downtown hotels Nov. 21.
The sticking point, from BUILD's view, is the hotels' unwillingness to provide job-by-job wage and personnel information for 3,000 workers. The hotel industry says it cannot continue talks because BUILD activists are unwilling to define what they mean by "a living family wage."
(Despite BUILD's unsubstantiated claim that most hotel employees are part-time workers, documents submitted to the federal government show most are full-time employees. Hourly wages at the top three convention hotels average $8 and salaried employees make $33,000 a year.)
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has chosen the city's tourism and convention business as his No. 1 economic development tool. The mayor is not unsympathetic to BUILD's demands. "I believe as a matter of policy that if you work full-time in this country, you shouldn't be poor," he says.
Nevertheless, the mayor is becoming concerned about BUILD's intransigence. "I don't think this should be an either-or situation, particularly since BUILD has never defined the living wage. I think it's incumbent for BUILD to do so," the mayor said. He described BUILD's planned demonstration as "not in the best interests of the city."
BUILD is led by organizers from Chicago's Industrial Areas Foundation. Its basic strategy is to create confrontation and "controlled anger" -- as its founder, the late Saul Alinsky, put it -- to achieve goals. BUILD's member groups are churches and civic groups that are well established in Baltimore. The good will they have enjoyed is likely to erode, however, if they start an unwarranted harassment campaign or make allegations and demands they cannot back up with hard facts.