ESPN Zone workers: court win shows failure of Baltimore economic development model

VIDEO: Security guard grabs mike from priest praying with workers at a 2010 rally.

Baltimore Inner Harbor Workers Stage Rally YouTube

“We are not disposable. We are human beings,” Baltimore ESPN Zone cook Leonard Gray said at an October 2010 rally.

Photo by: YouTube

The laid-off Baltimore ESPN Zone workers who won their lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co. subsidiary last week are claiming a victory that’s larger than their two-year-old class action suit.

The ruling by a federal judge Thursday that workers were underpaid when the Inner Harbor attraction closed abruptly in 2010 supports, they say, a broader critique of a city economic development policy that they say relies too heavily on tourism-oriented service industry jobs.

“We have been calling on city leaders and developers to address human rights abuses at the Inner Harbor for years,” said former ESPN Zone host Emanuel McCray, in a statement released by United Workers.

The group has been advocating for employees there and for other low-wage workers at waterfront restaurants and attractions.

“I hope that this important federal court ruling will spur a renewed energy to rethink development in Baltimore so that our public resources are used to ensure work with dignity,” McCray said.

That the litigation was about more than money comes through in the voices of workers who rallied outside the Pratt Street attraction after it, along with four other ESPN Zone locations nationwide, was closed down.

In the October 2010 video below, former ESPN Zone employee Leonard Gray said he found out about the closure through Facebook and that other longtime employees learned about it on television news.

“We felt like we were disposable cups, thrown out when we were no longer needed,” said Gray, who worked at the sports-themed arcade and amusement attraction for six years.

“If it wasn’t for the media leaking it out, we would have came to work on June 15 with the doors closed and locked.”

The suit against Zone Enterprises of Maryland, on behalf of 140 full and part-time workers, charged that the company failed to give employees 60 days notice as required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act and to properly pay them for that 60-day period as required by the law.

Guard: “This is Private Property”

United Workers has been alleging widespread human rights abuses at Inner Harbor businesses since 2008, including abusive working conditions, chronic wage theft, a lack of health insurance and sick days, and a failure by the city to respond adequately to workplace injuries.

Employers have generally rebuffed the group’s efforts to discuss these complaints, including ESPN Zone landlord, the Cordish Company. According to United Workers, they still have not responded to the group’s requests to discuss their 2011 report, “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

Video of a 2010 rally (above) shows a security guard attempting to disrupt Rev. Roger Scott Powers as he participates in a rally supporting workers outside the ESPN Zone.

The workers’ group has also taken to task the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC)  for subsidizing waterfront developers and businesses without holding them accountable for mistreatment of workers and inadequate pay.

Cordish, as The Brew first reported, sought $3 million in rent relief from the city for his Power Plant properties. So-called “living wage” bills have been proposed in the Baltimore City Council but haven’t – as this report on the City Council’s response – gotten far.

United Workers protest "preferential treatment" given to developer David Cordish outside the offices of the BDC in 2011. (Photo by Fern Shen)

United Workers protest “preferential treatment” given to developer David Cordish outside the offices of the BDC in 2011. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Workers have scored some victories.

Employees of the Baltimore Hyatt hotel complained this year to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that they were being spied on, harassed and even fired as retaliation for talking with the national hotel  workers’ union, Unite Here!

In November, the NLRB filed a complaint on their behalf. The Hyatt says its handling of employee disciplinary matters was justified and not improper.

A trial is scheduled on January 14.

“I Had a Beautiful Job”

As for former ESPN Zone workers, they are awaiting recalculation of their severance packages but also looking back on the disruption they suffered as a result of the company’s abrupt shut-down.

Several had to move out of their homes and experienced homelessness after losing their jobs and receiving inadequate severance packages, United Workers organizers said.

“I had a beautiful job. I loved going to work every day,” said ESPN Zone chef Winston Gupton, fighting back tears in one of the 2010 videos shot after the place was shuttered. “And then for them to snatch the rug out from under me . . . us, with no respect, no kind of solutions.”

In their 2011 report on conditions at Inner Harbor workplaces, United Workers argues that experiences like Gupton’s are endemic to the service industry jobs offered by out-of-town companies – employers the city has been encouraging at Baltimore’s waterfront since it was developed in the 1970s:

“Job creation has been addressed as a simple matter of quantity – how many jobs created – not quality.”

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  • Gerald Neily

    Here’s the pattern: We already knew ESPN Zone was a failure. Now we know
    it’s an even bigger failure. When a city propped-up project fails, like say the
    Grand Prix, the city says its strategies need more time. But when they get an
    immediate hit, like Harborplace or the Aquarium, they still keep
    propping them up. Thus Harbor East is a big success and Harbor Point still gets subsidized. The city merely does whatever is necessary to keep its favored places going, thereby absorbing any pent-up demand which
    starves the rest of the city. They call them “catalysts” and “building on strength” but it’s really just the only game they know.

  • James Hunt

    Well, Gerry and Fern, here’s your golden opportunity to present an alternative model, one that’s superior to what men like Schaefer, Brodie, Embry, et al, cooked up. Have at it, kids!

    • Gerald Neily

      Thanks Jamie, it’s always great to hear from you. I shall rise to your challenge. Stay tuned.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    I have a lot of sympathy for the workers and support improving their lot.  Even if it means a big increase in the cost of a restaurant meal, I think that full-time service workers should be paid a living wage.

    But having said that, to refer to inadequate sick leave and receiving fewer than 60 days’ notice of a job loss as “human rights abuses” is disgusting.  It makes a mockery of real human rights abuses. It’s like calling someone you disagree with a Nazi — it diminishes the evil by invoking it so cavalierly.

    Yes, minimum wage stinks.  But equating the Cheesecake Factory with the Tonton Macoute is insulting.

    • asteroid_B612

      Regarding “human rights abuses” — so the systematic rape of women in Darfur by Sudanese soldiers is morally equivalent to Disney systematically not offering paid sick days to its restaurant employees. That’s a pretty grand trivialization of other people’s suffering. I understand the uses of hyperbole, but that’s taking things a wee bit far.

  • cwals99

    This is an excellent article.  We have the Pew Research study of state use of business tax credits that placed Maryland yet again at the bottom in the nation for failure to provide oversight and verify contractual agreements for businesses receiving these tax breaks.  This would include all of Enterprise Zone areas involved in these workers abuses. 

    Justice organizations know that all of these contractual agreements are being broken as relates to hiring underserved from the community and paying a living wage… does not happen.  This is an important point because for those of us wanting to reverse all of these tax agreements that last for decades, you do not have a contract if the terms of agreement are not met.  So, all of these Enterprises Zone areas now exploiting their workers can and will see more lawsuits.

    We have Third Way corporate pols in office throughout the state that allows all of this fraud and corruption to flourish.  We need these unemployed workers running and all of us voting for labor and justice candidates next election!!

  • Peter Sabonis

    Asteroid.  Human Rights are economic and civil.  Right to Life, right to liberty, right to safety, no different from right to subsistence, health care, housing, education.  The US media doesn’t define human rights.  See 

    • James Hunt

      Peter Sabonis wrote:

      “Asteroid. Human Rights are economic and civil. Right to Life, right to liberty, right to safety, no different from right to subsistence, health care, housing, education. The US media doesn’t define human rights.


      No, but the US Constitution does, and nowhere does it specify what one should be paid to work in a restaurant. No doubt the Prime Rib pays its highly-trained staff pretty well. Most of us kulaks can’t afford to eat there, but who needs those horrible,middle-brow chain restaurants at the harbor anyway? I’m sure that if they went away, we’d soon see the return of watermelon boats, bay steamers, and dear old Connolly’s on Pier Four.

      I’ve been laid off and it sucks but the vast majority of Americans who’ve had that same unhappy experience do what I did: get up the next day and get out and look for another job.

  • Sergio Espana

    Re: some of the comments – At no point in the article or in any of the links did workers claim they were being treated like folks in Darfur and I seriously doubt they intended to diminish the dignity or incomparable suffering of others by publicly speaking on the economic abuses and degrading treatment they dealt with.  To say that folks in our communities somehow don’t have basic human rights to pursue their happiness or do not have economic rights to a decent standard of living and opportunity simply because they’re American and their plights aren’t foreign enough for us to seriously consider seems to have its own sense of hypocrisy.

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      Reread my post.  I agree that as a general proposition, it is a good thing if workers make a wage that allows them to live with some shred of dignity, and if employers treat their employees fairly and respectfully.

      But you do not have a “human right” to make some arbitrary amount of money. Not in a capitalist system, anyway.  You have a statutory right to minimum wage and whatever other protections the law might allow.  Beyond that, you have bupkus.  If you want to lobby for a higher minimum wage and better protections for workers, go right ahead — I’ll probably support you.  But absent that statutory protection, the issues described by these workers in these articles are not “human rights abuses.”  They have no more “right” to earn $15/hour washing dishes than I have a “right” to a cheap hamburger.

  • Rocky_Ground

    It’s a shame to watch as folks go at each other about some wording in this article. The system (and yes, we have an economic “system” in this country) is largely rigged against working people, thanks to unenforced labor laws, decreased union participation, and a political system much more focused on the needs of the affluent.

    Anyone who cares about working people should despair about stories like these. Minimum wage: yes. Living wage: even better. Laws that encourage unionization: yes.

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