Several concession workers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and some of their supporters were arrested March 13 while protesting for a pay hike on the steps of the Maryland State House in Annapolis.

The workers went to Annapolis to ask for support in their effort to get BWI Thurgood Marshall concessions developer, AirMall USA, to ensure that the 800 plus men and women – many of them African American – who work in the airport’s food and retail outlets receive a pay upgrade.

They want their wages to equal those of the lowest paid state employees who work at the airport. “For over a year, my co-workers at the airport and I have been sharing our stories with our elected officials here in Annapolis,” said Evelyne Diadhiou, a server at BWI Thurgood Marshall’s Silver Diner.

“We’ve made it clear that many of us are unable to provide for ourselves and our families because of insufficient wages, and we’ve asked for them to take action. Diadhiou said the workers did not receive a positive response from their

“We’ve heard over and over that ‘Something needs to be done,’ and we’re marching today in Annapolis to demand that it finally happens,” she said during the march. “We need change at BWI. Not tomorrow, not ‘someday.’ Right now.”

During the march, a group of workers and supporters – including members of Interfaith Workers Justice of Maryland – donned signs reading “I Am Equal” in homage to the iconic “I Am A Man” signs carried by men seeking equality during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Following the march and rally on Lawyer’s Mall, some of the workers and supporters took part in a civil disobedience action on the State House steps. Police took 14 into custody.

“For too long those of us who have lived a comfortable middle-class life, including clergy, have acted as if the Civil Rights Movement was over; as if the hard fought battles were ‘won and done.’

They’re not,” said the Rev. Carletta Allen of Asbury United Methodist Church in Annapolis, who participated in the civil disobedience. “My willingness to be arrested is my attempt to stand with those upon whose shoulders my comfort has been won – those who faced the dogs, the fire hoses, the beatings, and yes, arrest and imprisonment.

I mean it literally when I say, ‘It’s the least I can do.’ My brothers and sisters who are STILL waiting for equity and justice deserve it.”

In 2004, the state of Maryland contracted with for-profit developer AirMall USA to manage the airport’s concessions program. AirMall contract with  concessionaires, who employ the workers. Under AirMall’s direction, passenger traffic and spending at the airport have increased, but according to successive surveys by Baltimore-based UNITE HERE Local 7, concessions employees’ wages have not.

According to a survey of 180 workers—of an estimated 830—conducted by the union between December 2013 and January 2014, non-tipped concessions workers at the airport earn a median wage of $8.50 per hour. That is the same rate found in 2011 from a similar union survey of 198 BWI concessions workers.

Marchers urged the state to pass a law that would require it to exercise a 2017 opt-out option included in AirMall’s contract. The state’s contract runs through 2022, but if the state is unhappy with the company’s performance, they can end the contract early, officials said.

Supporters traveled from as far away as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New
York City to support the workers’ effort. The workers were arrested, detained with plastic zip ties and taken to a police station where they were charged with  obstruction of the public way for blocking the stairs. They were issued citations and released. The protesters had not been given a court date or fined as of March 18. 

UNITE HERE Local 7 is a union representing more than 250,000 hospitality workers in Baltimore and across the country.