United Workers

The United Workersis a Baltimore-based human rights organization led by the poor to end poverty.   

They began in 2002 by organizing homeless day laborers -- workers that labor unions shunned. By 2005, the laborers secured living wages at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, and established a collective bargaining agreement with their contractor.  

United Workers (UW) moved its worker organizing to the tourist zone. With NESRI, the UW released Hidden in Plain Sight: Workers at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Struggle for Fair Development, a documentation of worker human rights’ abuses aided by public subsidies that built and maintained the Harbor.  

When Disney-operated ESPNZone restaurants closed without notice across the nation, only the Baltimore Inner Harbor restaurant workers rebelled, enabled by UW organizing. The workers won a class action lawsuit and back wages against Disney in 2013.    

The UW established a "Fair Development" framework based on the human rights principles of universality, equity, participation, transparency, and accountability. They partnered with Unite Here Local 7 to fight local Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidies, demanding social benefits in return. The community partnership with Unite Here won an agreement for union organizing at the Baltimore Casino in 2013.   

The UW established the Baltimore Housing Roundtable--an eclectic coalition of the poor, grassroots activists, academics, policy wonks, and lawyers devoted to bringing Fair Development principles to housing. Freddie Gray's death and the Baltimore City rebellion prompted the release of a community development platform, which became the framework for Community + Land + Trust: Tools for Development Without Displacement, a vision for community-driven development.  

The ensuing “20/20” campaign, where $20 million was sought in city bonds (annually) to transform vacant housing into Community Land Trust (CLT) housing, and another $20 million to deconstruct and green vacant housing by employing those returning from incarceration, gained political traction.   

When politicians stalled, UW and the Roundtable created a Housing Trust Fund by ballot petition. It then used the threat of another petition to then leverage funding for the Trust, through a transfer tax on real estate deals over $1 million. The resulting $13 million in annual revenue is being supplemented by city bonds to target $20 million annually to the Fund, which prioritizes deeply affordable housing.  

Environmental justice is also part of the Fair Development campaign. Community organizing by the UW in Curtis Bay, a South Baltimore neighborhood, focused on a proposed super-incinerator located within a mile of a local high school. High school youth researched the siting process and used Fair Development principles to critique it and envision alternatives.  

The youth spearheaded a successful anti-incinerator campaign, and began advancing community control of land as a solution to years of environmental racism. The CLT that is now being created will bring together local high school administrators, students, homeless service providers, urban agriculturalists, environmentalists, and community activists—all initially linked by incinerator campaign. 

The youth-led group is now campaigning to achieve a "zero-waste" Baltimore, free from incineration.