Alberta (Birdie) Palmer commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday joining with other young workers at Coppin State University trading stories about their experiences on the job.
A Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Palmer landed a job at Starbucks while in college in Hicksville, N.Y. “There weren’t many blacks in the town,” says Palmer. “I was hired by an assistant manager. Later, the white store manager came up to me and the first thing she said was, ‘Who hired you?’ Then I trained a white girl to get the promotion I should have gotten.”
Palmer, now a Baltimore-based organizer with UNITE HERE, a national union representing hotel and restaurant workers, was at Coppin State to help launch the Baltimore Black Worker Center, an organizing effort to empower black workers, raise their wages, benefits, respect on the job and challenge the kinds of bias Palmer experienced in her youth.
The Baltimore center is one of nine across the nation, sponsored by the National Black Worker Center Project. Some are recently formed. Others, like the Black Workers for Justice (BWJF), launched in North Carolina in 1981, have racked up major successes in organizing to lift the living standards of workers in their surrounding communities. BWJF, for example, has helped build people’s health clinics to screen for industrial injuries and has played a pivotal role in organizing workers in manufacturing plants and the poultry industry.
Dorcas Gilmore, a member of the national project’s executive committee addressed the gathering after participants joined in a spirited call-and-response, answering “Which Side Are You On,” the title of a popular mine labor song, with “We’re On the Freedom Side.”
“We must be clear on the dual nature of the crisis facing black workers,” said Gilmore. The first crisis, she said, is the lack of jobs, with intolerably high levels of unemployment in many neighborhoods. But the second is the reality that jobs many black workers hold “aren’t good jobs.” Almost fifty-five percent of non-Hispanic blacks in Baltimore, says Gilmore, earn under $35,000 a year.
The center’s organizers, who say their aim is to build the power of black workers both in the workplace and in the community, have already interviewed more than 120 black workers about the problems they face at work. A report on their interviews and surveys will be released in February.
“Research is important, but statistics alone don’t touch the heart,” Courtney “C.J.” Jenkins, a processing clerk with the United States Postal Service told attendees.
“We will organize by telling our stories and listening to each other,” says Jenkins, who worked at Burger King, California Tortilla and a Baltimore box company before finally taking his mother’s advice and applying for a job with the U.S. Postal Service. He is now the youngest elected officer on American Postal Worker Local 181’s executive board and a member of the AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Advisory Council.
Jenkins and other activists say they hope the center will promote vocational education, help incubate collectively owned businesses where young workers can “monetize their skills” and “formalize their access to resources and networks, jobs and schools.”
Worker center activists say they are drawing inspiration from the fight to improve conditions for black workers at Johns Hopkins University. While thousands of union members employed directly by the elite school have succeeded in raising their minimum wages, the university continues to contract with a revolving door of predominantly black contractor employees who provide food services and security with low pay and benefits.
The contractor employees, members of UNITE HERE Local 7 and Service Employees International Union, are demanding Hopkins convince contractors to agree to a wage platform that provides a sustainable income for employees, many of whom have worked at Hopkins for years.
“Our fight could set the tone for the rest of the city,” says Alberta Palmer, noting that the hospital’s CEO just received a $1.5 to $3 million raise. “Hopkins has the leverage to insist on decent wages for contractor employees,” says Palmer. They should also be entitled to the school’s $35,000 grants to workers who buy homes in the neighborhood near the campus, she said. The benefit is provided to Hopkins employees to allow them to move into areas that are now undergoing gentrification, where property values are greater than in other parts of the city.
The unions’ struggle on behalf of contractor employees has won the support of faculty and students. We will take this struggle all the way to City Hall and work to win a law protecting the jobs and wages of contract employees,” says Palmer. “Solidarity is about all of us working together,” said Palmer.
Ken Morgan, director of Coppin State’s Urban Studies Program, recapped some of the prior struggles to organize Baltimore’s black workers, including the legendary efforts of ship caulkers Isaac Myers and Frederick Douglass who established the Colored National Labor Union in 1869. “You are making history today,” said Morgan, who outlined the historic difficulties of black workers going back to the caulkers’ days in winning support from majority white unions.
Fred Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, amplified that theme. “I represent 350,000 union workers,” said Mason. Unionized black workers fare far better than unorganized workers, he said. But the median income of black union workers is still $200 less a week than white union members in Baltimore. “The question,” said Mason, is “How do we consciously fight against racism and exploitation and not bow to spontaneity so we won’t be looking back in 20 years having the same discussion we are having now?”
Supporting the workers center organizing is the Ujima People’s Progress Party, which bills itself as “a grassroots, community effort to build the first Black workers-led electoral party for social and economic justice in Maryland.” Members of the party circulated copies of the Freedom Manifesto-A Draft Manifesto to Rebuild the Black Liberation Movement to all town hall participants for study and future discussion. Drafters of the manifesto, including members of the Black Workers for Justice, hope to help convene a national assembly to unite activists around a common program.
Several other grassroots groups helped build the town hall, including the Baltimore Algebra Project, Black Womyn Rising and Baltimore Bloc.
For more information on the Baltimore Black Worker Center or to donate to the organizing effort e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 443-863-8190.
Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron, Labor Notes and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point in 2002, Shindel, a father of three and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. The International Labor Communications Association frequently rewarded his writing. He retired in 2016. Today he enjoys writing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, fly-fishing, and fighting for a more peaceful, sustainable and safe world for his grandchildren and their generation. Shindel is currently working on a book about the Garrett County Roads Workers Strike of 1970 www.garrettroadstrike.com.