Before protesters arrived at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor yesterday to call attention to working conditions and “poverty wages” for the workers who cook, chop, clean, dish-wash and bus tables there, one of them waited to talk to a reporter.
“They treated us like machines – like we didn’t have any emotions or needs,” said Raquel Rojas, a former Cheesecake Factory line cook, standing with leaders of the group organizing the protest, Baltimore-based United Workers.org.
As Rojas spoke in Spanish, her words translated by a member of the group, Baltimore police could be seen in small clusters around the pavilions.
There were also plain-clothed security guards, apparently hired by mega-mall owner General Growth Properties (GGP). At points, they locked the pavilion doors, letting puzzled pedestrians through individually.
United Workers has been pressing GGP, Cordish Companies (manager of the Power Plant attractions) and other firms that own or operate property at the city’s tourist waterfront to make tenants pay a living wage and support education and health care for workers and their families.
United Workers won a “living wage” for some contract workers at the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards a few years ago.
Saying that GGP has not replied to the group’s letters, they organized yesterday’s march to “Occupy the GGP.”
Chicago-based GGP has not responded to a message seeking comment from The Brew.
Rojas said the $9-per-hour job at Cheesecake Factory making pizzas and salads actually paid less because of her employer’s practices.
The 44-year-old said the restaurant changed the schedule without telling her and refused to pay her for $1,400 of work.
After she got sick (“I had mono”), they “punished me” and reduced her hours, she claimed.
Cheesecake Factory: No Comment
United Workers said such practices are widespread at restaurant and other tourist-oriented establishments at the Inner Harbor.
Cheesecake Factory senior manager Connie Fogle said she could not comment. She referred a reporter to the company’s corporate office, where a message has not yet been returned.
“With this kind of pay one job is not enough – I have had to work two or three jobs,” Rojas said. “I have two children and three grandchildren who depend on me.”
The group also singled out Chipotle located at the Pratt Street pavilion.
It called on the Mexican-styled grill (which lauds its advocacy of “local food”) to improve the wages and conditions for farm workers in its supply chain.
When about 125 protesters arrived at the Inner Harbor – singing “This Little Light of Mine” and carrying signs that said “Respect For All” and “Dignity” – they moved in a long line, past tourists.
They had started four miles away, in west Baltimore, walking through Mondawmin Mall (also owned by General Growth Properties) and marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and other streets to downtown Baltimore.
Climbing up the outside steps of the Light Street Pavilion, they used open air walkways to cross Light Street and proceed through McKeldin Square.
Police: “This is Private Property”
But when they attempted to circle back and cross Light Street at ground level and take their protest near or in the Pratt Street Pavilion, Lieutenant Anthony Proctor stopped them.
“You need a permit to be here,” he said.
“What if we just we want to go onto the pavement?” asked Nathaniel Norton, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Baltimore, pointing to the area between the pavilions, pretty much the center of Baltimore waterfront tourism.
“That’s private property . . . My understanding is they don’t want you here,” Lt. Proctor said.
He directed them to the front of the GGP-owned Gallery Mall, back from the water on the other side of Pratt Street.
Lt. Proctor said the protest would be “disruptive” and distract attention from the entertainers who perform at the waterfront spot.
Norton said police were “preventing them from exercising their First Amendment rights.”
The protesters retreated to the corner of Pratt and Light streets, in front of the Gallery, and continued their protest.