On Thursday, January 3, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake announced that former ESPN Zone workers were not adequately compensated when the Disney subsidiary closed its doors at Baltimore's Inner Harbor on June 16, 2010. The decision came more than two years after the former employees brought a class action lawsuit against Zone Enterprises of Maryland, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co, for violating the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, Act. The ruling represents mounting evidence that the current economic development model in Baltimore is broken.
"We have been calling on city leaders and developers to address human rights abuses at the Inner Harbor for years. 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," explained former ESPN Zone host Emanuel McCray.
"Of course I'm happy," said former ESPN Zone cook Janice Watson, after hearing the verdict. "It was a long way, but it was well appreciated. You can't get anything done by yourself, but we came together as a people in the United Workers, and this shows what can be accomplished."
While the ruling is an important step toward making amends with the workers, it is far from justice. Because of ESPN Zone's failure to treat its workers with the dignity and respect they deserved, former workers were forced to move from their homes or take their kids out of day care. At least two former employees were stricken with cancer and now face growing health care debt, having lost health insurance when ESPN Zone closed.
Winston Gupton experienced homelessness and then illness shortly after losing his job as a cook at ESPN Zone. With no way to care for himself and his six-year-old daughter, Winston was forced to move out of his apartment and leave town.
"I had a beautiful job. I loved going to work every day," said Gupton in July 2010, fighting back tears. "And then for them to snatch the rug out from under me... us, with no respect, no kind of solutions..."
The responsibility lies not only with Disney, but with the Cordish Company, which owns the lease on the Power Plant building, where ESPN Zone was located. Cordish has failed repeatedly to hold vendors accountable for violations against workers.
On June 30, 2010, former ESPN Zone workers held a press conference to protest their inadequate severance package and their employer's lack of closure notice. In response, a Cordish security guard attempted to interrupt the press conference.
Since 2008, United Workers has documented ongoing human rights abuses at the Inner Harbor, including chronic wage theft, abusive working conditions, a widespread lack of health insurance and sick days, and a failure to respond adequately to workplace injuries. These violations were highlighted in United Workers' Spring 2011 report on the Inner Harbor, "Hidden in Plain Sight." Cordish has failed to respond.
"Corporate executives think that they can break the law and get away with it, because harbor developers do not enforce any human rights standards, but we are human beings and we have the right to dignity and respect," said former ESPN Zone cook Debra Harris shortly before the workers filed the lawsuit in 2010. "We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone, and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life."
This message is as important today as it was two years ago. The ruling in favor of the ESPN Zone workers is an important victory. But it is only the beginning. Baltimore workers deserve far better: fair development with respect and dignity for all. Not just Disney, but Cordish, should be held accountable.