United Workers Take Aim at ESPN Zone

When the ESPN Zone restaurant-chain shuttered most of its doors last June, eyebrows were raised in the business press. The restaurants had made bank ESPN brand with good food and of course, wall-to-wall sports. But as Rick Alessandri, senior vice president at ESPN put it at the time, "The economy has hit every facet of our country. We weren't immune."

ESPN’s mother-ship, the Walt Disney Company, made the decision to engage in some creative destruction and the ESPN Zones were just part of the fat that was trimmed. This included the very popular locale in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. But there was one problem with this hard-nosed business decision: the 150 workers in Baltimore, shocked that their high-traffic restaurant closed, were told with less than a week’s notice. Federal law, according to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires 60 days of notice and severance. Instead, the workers at ESPN Zone were given the bum’s rush. Even worse, many didn’t hear the wrenching news through their boss. Instead many found out their jobs were yesterday’s news in the Baltimore Sun or even on Facebook.

Now the workers are fighting back and fighting mad. On Monday, October 25th, the former employee filed a class action lawsuit against ESPN’s parent company Disney to get the Mouse to comply with the penalty associated with violating federal labor law. The penalty for violating the WARN Act requires that Disney pay workers for 60 days at the rate of their last paycheck. The severance that Disney offered, which is shameful, is separate from this penalty. Their attorney, Andrew D. Freeman said,  “Disney’s severance payments were inadequate as a matter of law and as a matter of human decency.” The lawsuit also shines a spotlight on the most vulnerable people in today’s economy: people who live day in and day out working non-union, service industry jobs that can be here today and gone tomorrow.

 A cook at the ESPN Zone, Winston Gupton, was put out on the street after losing his job. Speaking at a June 30th press conference, Gupton said, “I never thought that a place that I dedicated myself to for 7½ yrs would reciprocate with such disrespect by shutting down with no notice at all. We were stunned. It was like walking through a dream. We were just devastated, and immediately, I had to figure out what I was going to do because I have a six year-old daughter that I take care of. I was even forced to find other living arrangements, because the income I was expecting during this busy summer season was now drastically diminished."

It would be comforting to think that the Winston Gupton story is his and his alone: a man who became collateral damage in this particular instance of cold corporate number crunching. But it's a story being told across the country. It is particularly common in the neighborhood where his former place of business rusts: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The Inner Harbor is a collection of high brand, national restaurant-chains like the Cheesecake Factory and Phillips Seafood, built to capitalize on tourist dollars and close proximity to the publicly funded Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the home of the Baltimore Ravens, MB&T Bank stadium  

There is a movement afoot to turn this tourist zone into a “Human Rights Zone” and  it’s being led by the same people who issued the class action suit on behalf the ESPN Zone employees: a group called the United Workers. The UW is an organization of low-wage workers that was founded by homeless day laborers in 2002. Today they have a membership of hundreds of workers trapped in that world between steady work and abject poverty. Their goal is to enter agreement with the restaurant chains to ensure basic human rights standards for workers across the harbor, including living wages, healthcare, and education. When a chain abruptly shuts its doors, like they did at the ESPN Zone, the UW wants to be treated like workers and not disposable equipment. As Debra Harris, a former ESPN Zone cook said,    

“We are sending a message to Disney, ESPN Zone and Inner Harbor developers that private gain should not take precedence over human life. Corporate executives think they can break the law and just 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.

Organizing the service industry has proven nationally to be a Sisyphean task for the AFL-CIO. But the independent United Workers have been successful in the past by waging highly visible grassroots campaigns, with the workers themselves in positions of leadership. They also relish taking on powerful corporations with national brands like ESPN and Disney, because they think by exposing the brand, they can get a seat at the table. Every corporation has a bottom line. The United Workers want to make sure there is at least some justice, dignity, and humanity in the process

[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]


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