BUILD seeks 'living wage' for downtown workers


The BUILD organization has a modest proposal: A man who cleans toilets at Baltimore's publicly financed ballpark shouldn't have to live as a pauper in a homeless shelter.

Charles Riggs, 32, worked such a $4.25-an-hour, minimum-wage job cleaning Oriole Park at Camden Yards last summer for Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services Inc. At quitting time, Mr. Riggs says he went to a shelter because he couldn't afford to rent a room.

BUILD, the church-based social action group, believes that is wrong. BUILD says the public money that built Camden Yards and redeveloped the Inner Harbor should yield jobs that pay a "living wage" -- at least $16,000 a year, enough to support a family and stay out of shelters.

To that end, BUILD has campaigned since April for a new "social compact": Downtown employers who benefit from public spending should create jobs that pay a living wage, provide fringe benefits and offer career advancement.

Today, 2,000 delegates to Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development's annual convention at the Hyatt Regency are expected to ask Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the City Council again to withhold public "subsidies" downtown until such a compact is negotiated.

BUILD's modest proposal has run into obstacles, not the least of which is the law of supply and demand.

Charles Riggs obeyed that economic law when he agreed to clean toilets for $4.25 an hour. The supply of workers is high, thus wages are low. Mr. Riggs knew that he would never take home more than about $140 a week, but he wanted the job.

"If you have a family to raise, you're going to take that job just to survive," Mr. Riggs said. "As long as [employers] know they don't have to pay a dime over $4.25, they're not going to pay it."

But Don Rankin, president of Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services, also followed basic economics when he competed for the $703,000-a-year state contract to clean the stadium.

"When you're in a competitive bidding situation, you bid what the going wage rates are for labor in the market," he said. "If you want to stay in business, you have to pay what the market dictates."

Mr. Rankin says the stadium contract doesn't specify how much he or his subcontractors should pay workers. But he knows that if he pays too much, he won't win the bid competition.

Likewise, the city didn't dictate wages when it contracted to pay Stevens $6.30 an hour per worker to help clean the Baltimore Convention Center. But the more the company pays workers, the less remains for overhead and profit.

The city could specify that all bidders must pay janitorial employees no less than, say, $6 an hour. Then "everybody would bid apples to apples, and it's fair," Mr. Rankin said.

But, of course, such a contract would cost the city -- and taxpayers -- extra money. In an era of tight budgets and a stagnant tax base, Baltimore doesn't have extra money -- and residents show no sign of wanting to pay higher taxes.

"Service work is undervalued, not just in Baltimore but in our society," said Jonathan Lange, a BUILD organizer. "Because of that, people who serve the rest of us are locked into poverty. That's not going to change until service workers get some power."

Low-skilled service workers earn a wide range of wages. Janitors in private-sector jobs earned a median $5.19 an hour last year in the Baltimore area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But a janitor working on federal contract in the Baltimore area makes $6.30 an hour plus benefits under prevailing wage rates set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

That wage still falls far short of the $7.70 or more an hour the same janitor would need to meet BUILD's definition of a living wage.

Only government routinely pays janitors that much. Janitors employed by state and local government in the Baltimore area made a median $9.19 an hour last year.

But government is cutting back to save money. Baltimore has slashed the number of city employees by 16 percent from 1988 to the present, a loss of nearly 1,900 jobs. Some of that work has been contracted to private companies, which generally pay less.

By demanding not only jobs, but jobs that pay well, BUILD is swimming against economic and political tides. In Baltimore, which has lost 43,000 jobs since 1990, the creation of any job has often been viewed as a plus.

When BUILD targeted nine big downtown hotels as prime beneficiaries of public spending around the Inner Harbor and demanded that they pay higher wages, the hotels responded that their 3,000 jobs and $43 million collective payroll are a boon for the city.

And when BUILD says the hotels will benefit further from the $151 million Convention Center expansion, the hoteliers note that they paid more than $18 million in state and city taxes last year. They say expansion will mean more jobs and tax revenues.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said BUILD is "engaging in a discussion that labor unions have traditionally been in the forefront of -- that is, fighting for decent wages for workers."

Mr. Rawlings is sympathetic to BUILD's aims, but he said that "short of a revolution," it will be difficult to vault $5-an-hour downtown workers into the "living-wage" category.

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