Laid-Off Baltimore Workers Beat Disney in Court—And Ask All the Right Questions About Urban Development

By some estimates, the city of Baltimore has sunk more than $1.5 billion into its Inner Harbor. Workers and residents want their share too.
Emanuel McCray photo courtesy of United Workers

Emanuel McCray addresses a crowd of supporters outside the ESPN Zone restaurant where he used to work. Photo courtesy of United Workers.

Emanuel McCray is an army veteran with four combat tours under his belt. Despite his military service and his B.A. in political science, he, like many veterans, had a hard time finding work when he returned to civilian life in 2007. He felt pretty lucky when he finally found a position he loved, working as a host at ESPN Zone—a Disney-owned chain of sports bars. A sports fan, McCray prized the chance to interact with the many athletes who stopped in after games at the nearby stadiums. He hoped to move into management and thought that if he got a salaried position he’d make working at the restaurant his career.

“It’s not justice, but it’s a huge victory.”

In June of 2010, when McCray had been at the restaurant for almost two years, he arrived at work to find his co-workers in tears. Rumors had leaked in the press that Disney was closing the restaurant because they weren’t making enough money. One week later, Emanuel’s restaurant, along with four other locations in the chain, shut its doors. Around 140 Baltimore workers were left without new jobs, without health care, and without wages and tips from the upcoming busy summer season that supported many of them through the slow winter.

McCray felt betrayed by the owners for not telling employees about the closure directly, and for hiding the information for so long. Fair warning might have made it easier to find other restaurant jobs before the busy summer season was underway. “It was an emotional night. I was furious,” he remembers.

As the closure approached, McCray remembers the company issuing orders to employees not to talk to the media under the threat of losing their severance packages. When severance checks did come, they were calculated based on the average earnings from the past six months, instead of the full year. That meant that they were paid based only on the slower winter months when workers were given fewer shifts and receive smaller tips, right at the beginning of what should have been the busiest time of the year.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has been called “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

McCray remembers feeling hopeless. But the night that the closure rumors leaked, he was greeted outside the restaurant by organizers from the United Workers, a local human rights organization led by low-wage workers. (Full disclosure: The author has worked with the UW in a volunteer capacity.) They invited McCray and his co-workers to a meeting with labor lawyers to discuss their rights. Several dozen ESPN Zone workers attended, where they learned that they might have recourse under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, which requires large employers to give 60 days notice to employees before mass layoffs. McCray remembers the United Workers giving him a “glimmer of hope” that he and his co-workers might be treated fairly in the closure, with fair severance packages or some compensation for losing their jobs.

The closure of the ESPN Zone was significant in Baltimore not just because of the loss of the individual jobs, but because of the restaurant's place—literally—in Baltimore’s larger economic development strategy. The Baltimore ESPN Zone was located in the Power Plant development—a former power plant located on the shore of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that housed businesses, stores, and offices. The harbor area, a gleaming waterfront promenade featuring parks, shops, restaurants, museums, and the National Aquarium, is the most visible and heralded piece of Baltimore’s redevelopment plan.

ESPN Zone photo by Lyndi and Jason

The former ESPN Zone restaurant at Baltimore's Inner Harbor development. Photo by Lyndi and Jason.

Equitable development? Or just a facade?

The current incarnation of the Inner Harbor has its roots in the 1950s and 1960s, when politicians and developers sought a new purpose for the neglected waterfront property left behind when the city’s shipping and manufacturing industries declined. Over the next several decades, the city improved the area's infrastructure and courted private developers and businesses. In 1980 the Rouse Company capped the development with Harborplace, a series of glass and steel shopping centers the company called “festival marketplaces,” which were based on the company’s development of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston.

The Cordish Company paid a yearly rent of $1,000 for the first 10 years of the lease on a building.

The Inner Harbor was one of the first examples of a city redeveloping its waterfront into a tourist destination, an idea that has since become commonplace in cities around the world. It is often heralded as a great success for the city. In 2009 the Urban Land Institute, an urban planning nonprofit, awarded the Inner Harbor a Heritage Award, which are given to projects that pioneer new models of development. They called the Harbor “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

A private study commissioned by an association of Inner Harbor businesses and other local organizations estimated that in 2012 the Harbor supported 21,000 jobs, produced $102 million in city and state taxes, and drew 14 million visitors.

Laura Schwartz is the president of the Waterfront Partnership, an association of businesses and property owners around the harbor that also gets a small percentage of their funding from the city. She cites the tax and jobs benefits that the Harbor provides, but believes that the district benefits the city in other ways as well.

“It spurred an enormous amount of development throughout the city beyond just the Inner Harbor,” she says. She points to an association of families living in areas around downtown who have pledged to stay and raise their kids in Baltimore as an example of the benefits that the redevelopment helped encourage.

Schwartz believes that the jobs that the Harbor provides are beneficial to Baltimore residents, despite the fact that many of the positions are low-wage, service industry jobs. “Our restaurants and our services correspond to a national scale, and many people use their experience or their time working at a restaurant or retail shop to get some experience, get a reference, and move onto a next job or move up.” She cites recent research by the Waterfront Partnership that documented stories of employees who started as servers and moved up to become management, noting examples at Phillips, The Cheesecake Factory, and Tír na nÓg. “Mayor [Stefanie Rawlings Blake] worked at Harborplace,” she adds.

More than $1.5 billion in public money has been spent at the Inner Harbor since the 1970s, according to a report.

To the United Workers, however, the true story of the Inner Harbor development is much more complex. They point to a lack of accountability for promises made by private developers who received public money. Luis Larin, a longtime Leadership Organizer with the United Workers, points to the Hyatt Regency, the first subsidized hotel in Baltimore, as an example of the broken promises at the harbor. The hotel received a $10 million construction grant in 1979 and, according to Larin, promised to bring 500 new jobs in exchange. Now, he says, the hotel employs only around 130 people. Unite Here Local 7, which is working to organize the hotel’s workers, says that the Hyatt relies on temporary workers to do jobs that should be done by employees under the terms of its agreement with the city.

Then there is the lease the city signed with the Cordish Companies, one of the two major Inner Harbor developers and the developer of the Power Plant building where the ESPN Zone was housed. The company paid a yearly rent of $1,000 for the first 10 years of the lease on a building that houses retail and restaurant tenants—and the two floors of the Cordish corporate headquarters. Larin notes that most workers have to pay more in rent per month than the multi-billion dollar corporation paid per year. In 2011, Cordish asked for $3 million worth of rent breaks on two other nearby city-owned properties in exchange for making improvements to the Power Plant complex.

According to a report the UW co-authored with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, more than $1.5 billion in public money has been spent at the Inner Harbor since the 1970s, including tax breaks, bonds, grants, and below-market loans. They see the fact that there is no exact accounting of that public money as representative of the broader lack of transparency and public participation in the area. Perhaps most importantly, the United Workers point out that most of the jobs created with that public investment are low-wage and unstable. As rents for the retail spaces climb, local businesses are priced out and most of the spaces are filled with national chains, which means that instead of staying in the local community, the profits flow upwards and away from the workers and local economies. All of this adds up to what the United Workers calls “poverty zone development.”

That focus on development was what brought the United Workers to the ESPN Zone. They looked at the closure and didn't see just a single employer shutting its doors, but instead saw it as part of a broader pattern of public money in Baltimore going toward developments that benefit large corporations instead of local citizens. While they were after justice for the individuals who worked at ESPN Zone, the larger goal was to draw attention to the need for “fair development,” which they define as developments that “build the local economy, provide an abundance of living wage jobs, and create a vibrant community for everyone.”

McCray points out that the most important issue for the UW is a lack of public representation in development decisions. “Developers build […] housing or shopping centers, you don’t even use your own money, but you use people’s tax dollars to build them. And we should have more say what should go into the shopping center or what housing should be built in the area.”

Roots of a workers’ movement

When you enter the United Workers office, you come face-to-face with a giant paper mâché sculpture of Harriet Tumban’s head. It’s a physical reminder of something that is immediately apparent if you talk to any of the members or organizers—everyone is keenly aware of the history of the social justice movement in America, and sees their work as its direct continuation. Talk to anyone here for long enough and suddenly it doesn't seem like much of a leap between between Tubman’s struggle for freedom and the belief that restaurant workers in Baltimore should get a fair deal when a large corporation lays them off.

Emanuel McCray photo courtesy of United Workers

A United Workers demonstrate for workers' rights. Photo courtesy of United Workers.

Although the United Workers do sometimes seek to organize individual workplaces and often work closely with the labor movement, they are not a union. Their admittedly ambitious goal—ending poverty—requires flexibility that the traditional union model doesn’t always offer. The drive to organize the ESPN Zone after it closed is one example of that.

Mike Fox, who was a leadership development organizer with the United Workers during the ESPN Zone fight, says of their strategy, “It’s not just about if you’re a worker or you’re not a worker. That’s a distinction that’s made in labor movements and things like that. It’s about how communities and people across the city are being affected by development policies. Failed development policies. And how people can respond and stand up to that.”

The UW was founded in Baltimore in 2002 by homeless day laborers and organizers who were interested in rooting out the causes of economic inequality and poverty. The first two years were devoted to listening and learning: the founding members met at a shelter to talk about their lives and to discuss economics, the root causes of poverty, and the history of social change.

Development gone wrong

In 2004, the group decided to take on their first big campaign. It targeted Baltimore’s publicly owned baseball stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992. The 1992 construction of the park cost around $210 million of public money. It was touted as an economic benefit for the city, but to many homeless UW members who earned as little as $4.50 an hour for cleaning the stands, it didn’t seem like such a good deal.

The workers at Oriole Park—and other temporary workers—are not likely candidates for unionization. The high job turnover makes it almost impossible to get the critical mass necessary to begin the process of legally forming a union. Temporary workers are particularly vulnerable to illegal or abusive practices, as with the Camden Yards workers, who were paid a flat rate for a night of cleaning, no matter how many hours they worked.

Luis Larin, who is now a leadership organizer on the UW staff, was working as a day laborer when he was approached about the campaign. He had immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, and had been laid off from a job fabricating trucks after he attempted to organize his co-workers. He remembers being suspicious at first.

“My experience in Guatemala was more direct action. And I was under the impression that in the U.S. most of the organizing happens from top to bottom, and it’s not something that I really enjoy,” he recalls. After the first meeting, his mind began to change. “When I saw the organizing they were doing, it reminded me a lot of what I was used to, which was more like participation. Yes, there is one person facilitating the process, but the person facilitating is not telling you what to do. It wasn’t just participation, but also developing the skills for you to participate on another level. You can create this [campaign] and not just say yes or no.”

One example of that participatory process at work, Larin remembers, was the workers’ decision to go on hunger strike. It was three years into the campaign for fair wages at the stadium, and the United Workers had slowly ramped up their campaign of protests and media outreach. “When we got to that point, people were ready to make a commitment, to make a sacrifice. It just felt right for everyone,” he recalls. “It was just feeling right for the workers, and feeling right for the public, too. It wasn't just these random crazy people from nowhere.” Just before the strike began, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley called for the workers to receive a living wage.

After that, the United Workers negotiated an agreement that bumped worker pay to $11.30 an hour. It was a stunning victory for a temporary, low-wage work force.

Beyond a living wage

The Camden Yards victory notwithstanding, the fight to change broader development practices in Baltimore has been an uphill battle.

“Just because people make a living wage, it won’t change the reality in their communities.”

Shantress Wise, 39, who’s been a UW member for over two years, remembers her frustration when the City Council passed $107 million in tax incentives for the controversial new Harbor Point development in 2013. “We were pushing to make sure that it’s not just the developer that gets the profit, to make sure that the community gets some of the money,” she said, but by the time the public was aware of the proposal, “it seemed like the decision was already made by the City Council and City Hall to go through with it.”

Wise is not alone in her criticism of the process. A state panel ruled that the city’s Board of Finance broke the law when it barred members of the public from the meeting where they issued their favorable recommendation of the project and passed it along to the City Council. The Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote shortly before the final City Council vote approving the project that “despite an unusual amount of public criticism of the city’s support for this project, there has in fact been little question that it would be approved since the mayor stood with the City Council president to endorse the deal months ago.”

Recognizing that the relationship between developers and the city won’t change overnight, the United Workers has expanded their campaign from focusing on Inner Harbor workers to encompass issues facing communities all around the city. In the summer of 2012, members from the United Workers’ West Side Committee collected thousands of signatures and organized a successful campaign to keep open a recreation center and fire station that had been slated for closure by the city.

Luis Larin says that they were excited to be able to expand their focus. “There was this realization: Just because people make a living wage, it won’t change the reality in their communities.”

To Larin, the framework of fair development is a way to spark a larger discussion about capitalism and economics. “It is a way for us to criticize a larger system in a local place, and use that as an example to develop leaders.”

New leaders, new economy

If you talk to any United Workers member about what they get out of the organization, leadership development and learning are bound to come up. Keith Brown, 30, grew up in Baltimore and had been working at the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone for six years when they closed. He says that after he came to his first meeting he just kept coming back. “I was learning a lot of interesting stuff I didn’t know about, so I decided to stick around.”

Keith Brown gets quiet when asked whether the settlement check he receives was enough.

In addition to the hard skills in audio and video he’s learned as part of the media team, he remembers learning about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, who fight farm labor exploitation and human trafficking. “I was just shocked to learn that this was going on all around the world. That people were treating other people like this.” When asked if there was a relationship to his own struggle in Baltimore, he said, “I didn’t experience anything like they did but I felt I understood what they were going through. These people who have power try to get away with anything. It’s crazy.”

The UW education model relies on around 13 neighborhood and issue-based committees. Organizers develop curriculum units (the current one is housing, and economics is up next), and train Human Rights Educators from the committees in facilitation skills and the subject matter itself. They go back to their neighborhoods and discuss the readings with their community.

As the UW has expanded their campaign for fair development, the fate of the ESPN Zone workers wound its way through the court system. The situation looked grim at first.

Workers began the painstaking process of looking for new jobs. Despite his college degree and leadership experience in the military, McCray took a job at Wal-Mart because he knew it was the only work he could get under such short notice. Keith Brown looked for work for a year before he found another job. Some of the workers had to move their families out of state, and McCray remembers one co-worker who wound up homeless.

On January 3, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake agreed that Walt Disney Co. and its subsidiary, Zone Enterprises of Maryland, had violated the federal WARN act by failing to provide workers with 60 days notice of the closure. In November, a $230,000 settlement was announced for the 140 workers.

UW Leadership Organizer Mike Fox says while the settlement wouldn’t fix the wrong done to the workers, it was an important step. “It’s not justice, but it’s a huge victory,” he says.

Keith Brown gets quiet when asked whether the settlement check he receives was enough. “Even if it was enough ... it’s still messed up,” he says. He has struggled with unemployment since leaving ESPN Zone. An avid drawer, he says that all he wants out of a job is to be able to save up enough money to go to art school.

Emanuel McCray was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2011. He’s been in and out of remission, and after a transplant this summer hasn’t been able to return to full-time work.

Despite all that, McCray has become an advocate for universal health care as well as fair development, and he frequently speaks at meetings and rallies about battling his own illness. His next plan? Running for public office, where he believes the real change happens. He said that the lawsuit was motivation for him  “to fight for a cause bigger than just my job. For me it’s bigger than ESPN Zone.”

Meanwhile, he’s working to help provide people across Baltimore with the same “glimmer of hope” the United Workers gave him.