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Peter Angelos, champion of the worker?

“That’s his image, and that’s what he wants people to think he is,” says labor lawyer Peter Sabonis. “And maybe in his heart he is. But in his head, he’s not there.”

As proof of the Orioles owner’s failure to fight for the little guy, Sabonis points to the working conditions faced by the littlest people in the Baltimore baseball food chain: the folks who clean up after games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

It’s now the biggest day-labor job in Baltimore. Sabonis knows as much about the laborers’ situation as anybody who’s never tried to earn a wage by bagging beer-soaked programs and power-washing vomit stains from the Camden concourse can know. Through the United Workers Association (UWA), a group based in the city and one for which he once served as legal counsel, Sabonis has studied and fought for the mostly homeless and severely underemployed folks who have cleaned the stadium since it opened in 1992.

“I know when I was a kid and went to a baseball game, my dad told me to throw the peanut shells on the ground, and that’s what I did, and I never thought about the guy who was going to clean it up,” says Sabonis. “Somebody’s got to pick that up. A real human being. I think about that now.”

James Riddick, a 49-year-old Baltimore native, says he worked the cleanup detail beginning in 2003, after he was laid off from his electrician’s job. Riddick says to get on a postgame crew of about 80 workers for a 7 p.m. game, he had to show up at the front gate of the O’s Stadium at 9 p.m. There were two methods of payment, depending on the cleanup assignment. Trash pickers got a flat fee of $30 per game, though Riddick says after a big crowd, it wasn’t uncommon to put in eight hours or more before finishing the job. The power-washers got $6.15 an hour. For pay purposes, Riddick wasn’t considered on the job until the last pitch was thrown, despite the fact that three-hour-plus games are the norm. With rain delays or numerous pitching changes, the action could go on past midnight, meaning a worker could be on-site several hours before earning a dime. And, no matter how many consecutive hours he was on the job, Riddick was never paid overtime.

The pay situation was only part of the cleanup workers’ plight.

“Sometimes we didn’t have gloves, and we didn’t have aprons or anything to cover your clothes so the beer and everything else wouldn’t get on your clothes,” says Riddick. “When you’re doing that, you’re filthy, but you can’t go to the restroom to clean up or use the restroom without permission.”

Riddick says supervisors routinely docked him as much as two hours’ pay if they caught him going to the bathroom when not on an official break. Sabonis says he has heard from female crew members that sexual harassment on the job is routine but that worker complaints to supervisors are never investigated.

Two years ago, because of all the stories they were hearing from Baltimore’s homeless about the stadium situation, Sabonis and others at the UWA began what they dubbed the Camden Yards Project, an effort to improve the lot of the cleanup workers. And, as of last year, Sabonis and others with the group thought they’d made some headway.

They’d scheduled a demonstration about the cleanup issues for Camden Yards on Opening Day of the 2004 season. The plan was to put public pressure on both the Maryland Stadium Commission, which owns Oriole Park and the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium, and Angelos, generally regarded as the most powerful man in Baltimore, if not the entire state of Maryland. Sabonis had written a letter to Angelos five months earlier, alerting him to the allegations being made by the cleanup crews and asking for a meeting to discuss how to improve the situation.

Angelos hadn’t responded to that letter. But, just weeks before the start of the season and the planned demonstration, Angelos staffers got in touch with the UWA and said the owner was eager to make things right.

“They found out about our demonstration,” says Todd Cherkis, an organizer with the UWA (and brother of Washington City Paper writer Jason Cherkis).

Cherkis says an Angelos staffer called to pledge that the Orioles owner would work with the group to make sure there were no “sweatshops at Camden Yards,” so long as the owner wasn’t hailed as anti-worker or the bad guy in the stadium situation at an Opening Day rally.

“We took things down about Peter Angelos from our Web site; we didn’t mention his name [at the Camden Yards rally],” says Cherkis. “We held up our end.”

Around the UWA offices, Angelos suddenly went from villain to potential ally in the fight for cleanup-crew rights. The group pushed Angelos to make sure the cleanup crews not only get treated better on the job, but also get paid decently. And some changes were made. The Maryland Stadium Commission, with input from the Orioles, hired a new contractor to handle the crews beginning this season. The standard pay for the trash pickers was raised to $7 an hour.

But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, as the UWA sees things. In 1994, Baltimore lawmakers passed a “living-wage” ordinance with an escalating scale, whereby any contractor working with the city must now agree to pay workers at least $8.85 an hour. (The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.) Vendors working with the Stadium Commission, however, are exempt from the requirement by state law.

The UWA figured the quickest and surest way to bring the cleanup workers’ income up to speed would be to get Angelos to make up the difference between their current wage and the living wage out of his own pocket. By the group’s calculation, the owner’s subsidy would come to $880 per game, or $71,280 for an entire season. In August, Sabonis sent Angelos another letter asking him to pony up the larger amount.

Now, $71,280 isn’t a lot of money for a guy like Angelos. He’s thrown away bigger sums in the past, of course. Angelos gave Albert Belle $65 million, for example—or about $1.1 million for each homer Belle hit in an Orioles uniform. And in February, Angelos left $500,000 of his family’s money on the settlement table to walk away from a deal with CEO Thomas Chuckas Jr. and the owners of Rosecroft Raceway to purchase the harness track.

Angelos, says Sabonis, initially regarded the amount as doable, also.

“Last summer, the office phone rings, and the voice on the other end says, ‘This is Peter Angelos… I got your letter, and I’ll do it!’” says Sabonis. “I just wanted to clarify what he’ll do, so I said, ‘Sir, you’ll bring the workers’ wages up to the living wage?’ And he says, ‘Yes! I’ll do it! I’m for the worker!’ Then he gave me a long lecture on how he’s been for labor all his life and he’s been for the working man all his life.”

Angelos, however, has yet to follow through. And, according to the UWA, he has given no indication that he ever intended to.

Sabonis says he’s stunned Angelos would go back on his pledge, particularly since doing so risks the pro-worker reputation he’s cultivated over so many years.

“This is a guy, remember, who wouldn’t allow replacement players to come into Camden Yards during the baseball strike,” Sabonis says. “We’re fortunate in some sense to be dealing with a guy like Angelos, who has made his millions representing workers and seems to use that fact to further his reputation. We want to basically get him to live by his own creed.”

In hopes of making that happen, the UWA is planning to take a few whacks at Angelos in June, on what the team has scheduled as AFL-CIO Night at Camden Yards. Alongside the traditional labor organizations that Angelos has long championed, a group of homeless folks who’ve cleaned the stadium over the years also plan to show up and get themselves heard.

“These are the throwaways of the labor market,” says Sabonis. “Nobody cares about them. Nobody thinks about them. I think this would change if Peter Angelos could only see that a worker is a worker, that a worker is a human, even if that worker is picking up trash at his stadium. And I really don’t think he understands just how much havoc we can create.”

Sabonis has suggested that demonstrators might want to build a “trash pyramid” in front of the stadium to get their message across.

Angelos didn’t return phone calls for this story.—Dave McKenna