By Chris Landers
BALTIMORE – An unusual meeting took place Thursday night in the back room of a temporary labor business in Baltimore, and everyone involved was a little nervous.
The meeting was small — fewer than 10 day laborers gathered after work to air their grievances about Just Temps, the company that employs them. It was remarkable not for the numbers involved, but that it took place at all.
Todd Cherkis, an organizer from the United Workers Association, led the meeting, which he said was an outgrowth of a code-of-conduct agreement signed by the new owners of Just Temps earlier this year. That agreement represents a sea change in how labor services do business and allows for a formal grievance process for workers to bring their complaints.
Cherkis said he doesn’t know of any similar arrangement in the country, and his group has improvised the code of conduct, and their enforcement of it, on the fly, with the help of a handful of temp services and the companies that subcontract to them.
“I’m not a saint,” Just Temps owner Robert Guiney said. “I’m a businessman. The truth of the matter is if you treat people right they’re going to work harder and not goof off. If they do a good job we can command a higher rate for those people and they get paid more. It’s just good business.”
It is not, he said, how most of the day-labor industry does business.
“There’s a lot of exploitation in this business,” said Guiney, who waited outside while workers spoke to Cherkis. “You have a lot of unfortunate people getting taken advantage of.”
The workers at the meeting were wary of Cherkis at first. Some said they had been blacklisted at other services for complaining, passed over for jobs given out daily.
Anthony Clark, 50, said he had been fired from another temp service after his picture appeared in a newspaper story about a UWA protest at Camden Yards.
Despite their initial reluctance, the workers warmed to the topic, saying they wanted better wages, quicker raises, and better service from the vans that drive them to and from jobs.
Most complained of hard labor and low pay — none of which surprised Guiney. He said he’s been working on transportation issues and trying to put workers in positions where they may be hired permanently at area companies. He says he wants to work with the United Workers to train laborers for skilled positions, which he hopes will draw in a bigger labor pool.
Last year, Guiney said, when he was thinking about getting involved in the day-labor industry, he did some research, and that was how he found Cherkis.
“I was terrified to call him,” Guiney said, and Cherkis said he was just as surprised to receive the call.
The United Workers received a lot of attention for their protests of working conditions for laborers cleaning Oriole Park at Camden Yards — the biggest day labor job in the city. Workers weren’t paid wages owed them, Cherkis said, and Aramark, the company that ran operations, was unresponsive when UWA and the Baltimore-based Homeless Persons Representation Project contacted them with complaints about the temp services they used.
UWA went to the Maryland Stadium Authority, which decided last year not to renew its contract with Aramark.
Aramark spokesman Dave Freireich declined to comment on the loss of the cleaning contract.
Knight Facilities Management, which now holds the stadium cleanup contract, has been working with UWA to resolve complaints, an arrangement the site director Eric Belton describes as “positive.” For one thing, Belton said, it keeps the protesters away and allows Knight to “put a positive spin on things.”
Cherkis said his group has had a “really good response from Knight,” and sees the stadium protests as a success story for UWA and the workers they represent. He said the wages for temporary laborers cleaning the stadium at night have almost doubled, and complaints have been dealt with quickly.
“We want to attach a cost to running your business immorally,” Cherkis said. “Currently, companies are rewarded for that, but there’s a moral cost, and a public relations cost.”
The United Workers and Casa of Maryland are working together on a day-labor center in Baltimore, which Cherkis said will open at the end of the year. A couple of trailers in a parking lot will serve as hiring hall and education center for laborers.
“It’s an extension of the code of conduct,” Cherkis said. “We’re putting it directly to the companies that ‘Here is an alternative.'”
Clark, who is homeless, has been working steadily — cleaning houses and loading trucks — through Just Temps for about two months. He said his experience with the company has been good, and he recently got a raise from minimum wage to $5.50 an hour.
As he counted his money in the parking lot outside the building, he said other services have passed him over for jobs, but at Just Temps, “when I have a problem, I talk to Bob (Guiney) personally.”
Clark said he would come back to the next worker meeting, scheduled in two weeks. He liked the idea of the workers getting together.
“Without us,” he said. “They’ve got nothing.”