Just before the start of this year's baseball season, the group representing workers who clean up the peanut shells and plastic beer cups at Oriole Park at Camden Yards thought they had reached a breakthrough on getting higher salaries.
Not only had the United Workers Association persuaded the Maryland Stadium Authority to bring in a new contractor that pledged better wages and better treatment, the workers said that Orioles owner and labor champion Peter G. Angelos had personally phoned the group to say he would help.
"I thought it was just a tremendous thing that he was willing to do," said Peter Sabonis, a lawyer who represented the group at the time and had spoken to Angelos. "It would have sent shock waves through the Inner Harbor and Baltimore service center. It would have set a new standard."
But what exactly Angelos meant when he said he would help remains in dispute between the two sides. The workers, feeling slighted at not getting as much money as they had hoped, are planning to protest tonight outside the ballpark.
Roger Hayden, the Orioles director of ballpark operations, said that Angelos wanted to help the workers get more competitive wages. In March, a new facilities management contractor agreed to raise their wages to $7 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $5.15.
"They had approached Mr. Angelos some time ago," Hayden said yesterday. "He talked with them and said that he would do the best he could."
But UWA leaders say the request all along was for an additional $71,300 that would bring employees in line with Baltimore's cost of living mark, which is $8.85 an hour.
The UWA is planning to protest in front of the stadium's Eutaw Street gate on AFL-CIO union night at Camden Yards. They are threatening to throw spitballs at a target with Angelos' likeness and pass out peanuts to represent the "peanut wages" they say they receive.
"Angelos makes a big deal about being a friend to labor, but he's really on the team of big business," said UWA organizer Todd Cherkis. "When he agreed to pay the living wage, we thought he meant it."
After each home game, about 150 temporarily employed day laborers funnel into the stadium long after the last crack of the bat to clean up the leftovers from tens of thousands of fans. They scoop up cardboard cup holders, beer bottles, hot dog wrappers and cotton candy sticks, and they power wash the concrete surface. It takes four to eight hours.
Lisa Mitchell of West Baltimore has been working at the stadium for less than a year cleaning the corporate suites. The 42-year-old said the work isn't as bad as one might think, but the pay isn't sufficient.
"It's not a livable standard, but hey, you can live," she said.
Last season, the temporary employees were paid a flat rate that typically worked out to $6 an hour, though sometimes it was far lower depending on the number of hours worked. In late August, Sabonis, who now works for a Maine nonprofit, sent a letter to Angelos requesting he cover the difference between the employees' salaries and the city's cost of living, which by their calculations would be about $71,300. To their surprise, Angelos promised to help.
The cleanup workers don't work directly for the Orioles - they are employed by contractors hired by the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns Camden Yards. As a state agency, it does not have to adhere to the city ordinance requiring city contractors to pay workers at least $8.85.
That, said the Orioles' Hayden, could have let the team off the hook. But Angelos, Hayden said, wanted to help the workers. He said Angelos never agreed to a set dollar amount but pledged to "do his best."
Gregory J. Smith, chief operating officer for the Maryland Stadium Authority, confirmed that Angelos and the Orioles were part of the group that decided to hire Knight Facilities Management in March. Knight agreed to pay the employees $7 an hour.
"Seven is competitive with what other people here at Oriole Park make," Hayden said. "It's not the type of work where people would count on it to be sole source of income but part of an income stream."
Cherkis, of the UWA, disputes that, calling the wage "poverty level." The union maintains that city-owned facilities such as the Convention Center and Baltimore Arena pay employees in line with the cost of living.
Meanwhile, Mitchell is waiting, albeit with little hope, that another agreement can be reached.
"They're passing the buck. I understand that it's a lot of different hands, but it's not fair that we, being subcontracted, are not getting paid for our services," she said.