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Organized Labor Seeks to Play Role in City’s Workforce Development

The local AFL-CIO chapter is organizing a three-year pilot project with the Maryland State Department of Education that will train 100 inmates a year to become apprentices in building trades.

by Russell Henley

Two Baltimore-area union leaders spoke at a December 3 forum at the University of Baltimore titled “Organized Labor in the Baltimore Region.” Baltimore workers, employers, and business developers were called to task to help speed the city’s economic development during the event, part of a series on Baltimore-area workforce issues organized by The Job Opportunities Task Force and The Open Society Institute in Baltimore.

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, and Roxie Herbekian, International Trustee of the Hotel Employees Union Local 7, reviewed the present regional union membership situation, stating that there are 500 unions with 350,000 members in Maryland and the District of Columbia, with the majority of members being in urban areas.

Mason reported that, while each year about 12,000 more Baltimore City workers migrate to jobs in the outlying areas, about 8,000 of the state’s 15,000 inmates released annually from correctional institutions come to Baltimore City in need of employment to support themselves, and, in many cases, their families. Two-thirds of these released inmates have no high school diploma.

“The ‘survival of the fittest’ notion is a context created by the wealthy,” said Mason, who believes more can be done to educate and train inmates prior to their release. Mason’s AFL-CIO chapter is organizing a pilot project with the Maryland State Department of Education that will train 100 inmates a year to become apprentices in building trades. The pilot program will last three years.

Herbekian, a labor organizer for 20 years, discussed the decrease in union participation among workers in the hotel, food service, gaming, and airport industries, which she asserted has led to low wages and contributed to the burden for families of obtaining affordable health care. Herbekian said that employees in the hotel industry are hurt most because of seasonal fluctuations of guests, often resulting in layoffs during the less busy times of the year. She reported that while the 14 hotels in downtown Baltimore provide close to 5,000 jobs, the average wage of hotel employees is approximately $8 an hour. If employees were to join a union instead of relying on government aid to make up for income deficiency, she said, this would be “a real payback to the city.”

However, Herbekian made it clear that organizing a union is not easy work. “People have to be superheroes to organize a union,” she said. “The laundry workers at Johns Hopkins University fought for three years to establish a local chapter.”

Employers and business developers can also do more to be union-friendly, said Herbekian. “The developers should be required to recognize worker’s rights,” she said. This would lead to a higher “living wage” than the current $8.49 an hour, she said, and would improve health care benefits for workers.

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This story was published on January 8, 2003.
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