Public housing maintenance workers with AFSCME Local 647 demonstrate outside the offices of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City on Feb. 18. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

(Updated 02/27/15) A union representing maintenance workers in Baltimore’s public housing facilities is calling for higher pay, improved working conditions, and a way to keep their members in their jobs as the city moves to develop more public housing stock through a program which shifts ownership of affordable housing, historically the domain of the city, into private hands. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) says they have done as much as they can to minimize the impact of this new housing model on workers, and counter that they have already agreed to higher pay in a new contract that the union has yet to sign.

In an AFRO interview published last November, Baltimore Housing (of which HABC is a part) Commissioner Paul Graziano said the city’s public housing stock has over $800 million worth of capital improvement needs, while only receiving something in the area of $4 million annually from the federal government (HABC is a federal agency) to address it. Because HABC cannot afford to maintain its public housing stock at this level of funding, it has sought to make use of a program known as the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which seeks to create public-private partnerships in order to develop more affordable housing in Baltimore.

However, because RAD moves public housing properties into private hands, maintenance workers currently employed by HABC are left vulnerable according to Anthony Coates, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 647, the union representing HABC’s maintenance workers.

Public housing maintenance workers with AFSCME Local 647, led by their president Anthony Coates (foreground with grey hat), filled the waiting area outside HABC’s offices downtown. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

“Ever since the housing authority has implemented RAD . . . it led to the removal of 22-plus properties,” said Coates. “We’ve been threatened with layoffs of more than 200 people.”

Coates says that bargaining and grievance procedures have effectively ceased, as his union looks not only to preserve the jobs of the maintenance workers – which he says are around 95 percent African American and some of whom themselves live in public housing – but to increase their wages, currently so low that it makes retaining employees difficult.

At a demonstration outside of HABC’s offices downtown on Feb. 18, workers complained of dangerous working conditions, particularly with respect to what they say was toxic, industrial grade paint for certain commercial purposes, that painters were made to use on the interior of housing units.

“They used the paint in 105 units, so just imagine how many tenants, children, and elders are being poisoned because of that paint,” said Lucky Crosby Sr., a senior executive board member and the safety officer for Local 647.

Diane Cooper, another worker, said employees are regularly exposed to bed bugs, cockroaches, and other pests, and that at current salary levels, employees cannot afford to pay exterminators if they find that some of those pests have made their way into their own homes – something she claims has happened to at least four of her colleagues.

“When you own your home, that’s an expensive thing to pay out of pocket, but yet nobody’s going to come to my house . . . and pay for that extermination,” said Cooper, who noted that the union is looking for pay in line with what housing authorities operating in other cities in the region, such as in Philadelphia, are paying.

“At least with equal pay you’ve got a start as to, okay I’m in these hazardous conditions but yet you’re paying me responsibly and well enough that I can actually afford such things (like exterminators).”

Officials at HABC dispute some of the claims being made by union members, however. According to Cheron Porter, director of communications for Baltimore Housing, the housing authority has indeed negotiated a new contract with Local 647, and is simply awaiting the union’s signature.

Porter also said the cost of living in Baltimore and Philadelphia are not the same, but that the new contract stipulates that workers will receive an annual 2.5 percent increase in salary for three years, representing a 7.5 percent increase over current salary levels at the end of that term.

Further, while no public housing properties have yet to be transferred to private ownership under the RAD program, and though developers have expressed interest in keeping current maintenance workers employed on the properties, housing has nonetheless sought to minimize the impact RAD might have on their workers.

“We’ve done job fairs where we’ve gotten employers . . . that were looking for the skill sets of our employees that we had – specifically those impacted by the RAD stuff, we’ve had job fairs for them. We’ve also done resume workshops, interview skills, because we understand that we have a number of employees that it’s probably been some time for them. So there are a number of things that have been done over the past year,” said Porter.

Coates said that the union has indeed been offered a new contract by HABC, but that they did not receive it for review until Feb. 24, and that the union was given only half a day to make a decision about whether to sign it. “I need a full day for us to go over this contract,” said Coates, adding that so far, “We don’t like what we see.”

According to Tania Baker, deputy director of communications for Baltimore Housing, representatives from HABC met with members of Local 647 last Monday to discuss the claim that potentially toxic industrial paint was used on the interior of housing units, and determined that the paint used was a non-toxic, interior/exterior paint.

Coates disputes the claim by Housing, and says the union has documents, consisting of e-mails and a receipt, that prove that industrial-grade paint was used.  The AFRO is awaiting the documents in order to verify this claim and will update this story if and when we receive them.  Regarding the most recent contract offer by HABC to Local 647, Coates says he has reached out to HABC to ask for further negotiations, and that he has given HABC until Monday to respond to the request.