Preaching the importance of respect, dignity and justice for low-wage workers at a Labor Day prayer service and rally, the men and women who clean Camden Yards called off a planned hunger strike yesterday to give the Maryland Stadium Authority a few more days to sign a binding "living wage" agreement that the workers have demanded.
Organizers with the United Workers Association, a human rights group founded by homeless day laborers in Baltimore, said they were encouraged by public remarks Friday from Gov. Martin O'Malley and Frederick W. Puddester, chairman of the stadium authority.
Both expressed support for a living wage for the part-time workers who clean the state-owned Orioles and Ravens stadiums on game days.
Association organizers said they would delay the hunger strike until Saturday after the stadium authority's regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, where the board is expected to begin the process of rebidding the stadium cleaners' contract. The current agreement for workers at both stadiums expires after the football season.
"We hope that by postponing the hunger strike, we can provide the MSA the breathing room required to come to a just decision and turn words into actions and intentions into commitments," Rose Menustik, an organizer with the United Workers, told the crowd gathered behind the Light Street Presbyterian Church in Federal Hill, where the hunger strike had been scheduled to begin yesterday morning.
She later added in an interview: "We're waiting to hear their decision. We didn't want to be five days into a hunger strike and have them say no to our demands."
Dozens of workers, union members and labor organizers - many wearing mustard-yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the United Workers Web site address - crowded into the courtyard behind the Federal Hill church. With the hunger strike called off, they dug into heaps of muffins, bagels, fruit and other snacks. Several held oversized signs demanding living wages or quoting Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor leader who regularly fasted to draw attention to boycotts and protests by migrant farm workers.
Although such hunger strikes are a common protest tactic in Britain, Turkey and elsewhere, they have not been widely used in the United States, experts say.
"The labor movement usually arises out of hunger - out of people not having enough to eat - so protesting by not eating is not a tactic that's often thought of," said Bill Barry, the director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Hunger strikes have become more popular in recent years among college students, who could face expulsion for other forms of protest, said Robert J.S. Ross, a sociology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He collected data on 18 hunger strikes and sit-ins that were held at colleges and universities during the past academic year, mostly by students protesting campus workers' wages or a university's sale of logo merchandise made in sweat shops.
"For students, you generally might get yourself in deep yogurt by obstructing the administration building," Ross said. "But if you're sitting in front of administration building, half starving yourself to death, they're not going to expel you, but they'll pay attention."
The workers who pick up trash and clean bathrooms at the Orioles and Ravens stadiums during and after each home game typically earn $7 an hour. The association is asking for at least Baltimore's living wage of $9.62, which applies to service contracts with the city.
The state's newly passed living-wage law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, requires state government contractors to pay their employees $11.30 an hour in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and $8.50 in the rest of the state. But because the law applies to employees who work 13 consecutive weeks over the course of a contract, the newly signed legislation would not technically cover the stadium cleaners, who work only when Baltimore's football and baseball teams play in town.
Puddester, the authority chairman, said he has been clear with the association about his support for a living wage since he first met with them last month.
"It's the policy of the state," he said of the living-wage law yesterday in an interview. "Can the stadium authority argue that they're exempt on a technicality? Yes, they could. But I don't plan to take that approach."
Puddester said he expects the seven-member board to issue a request for proposals from vendors for cleaning services after Thursday's public meeting, and he intends to specify the cleaners' wage in that document.
Stadium workers who attended the prayer service and rally said they hope that their efforts would pressure the stadium authority board to improve their wages and working conditions.
"Every time I go to work there, I feel like less of a person because of what I have to go through," said Lamont Pollard, 27, who has worked as a stadium janitor for three years. He and other workers said they are often not given sanitary gloves and other supplies they need and are required to eat in the bathrooms.
"When I leave, I feel better - like I just got out of jail," he said. "It shouldn't be like that."