someone signing paper with others behind
Members of the Service Employees International Union deliver petition signatures to the Detroit City Clerk on Feb. 7, 2023, seeking the creation of an industry standards board for downtown arena employees. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

Employees at downtown sports venues are triggering a process to create Detroit’s first workers rights board under a relatively new city ordinance. 

The ordinance, which took effect at the end of 2021, was celebrated as an innovative approach to support Black and Hispanic Detroiters who typically work in lower-paying industries. It allows for the creation of a volunteer board that recommends industry-wide standards for pay, safety, scheduling and training. Union organizations and Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, who introduced the policy, say industry standards boards give workers a stronger voice to improve working conditions and raise their wages. 

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) delivered more than 300 petition signatures Tuesday to the office of the Detroit City Clerk. The petitions kickstart a process to establish an industry standards board for hundreds of workers at Little Caesars Arena, Ford Field and Comerica Park. Petitions were signed by employees at all three arenas, organizers said, including union and non-union members. 

Olympia Entertainment manages operations at Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park. Keith Bradford, president of Olympia Development and The District Detroit, issued a statement late Tuesday defending practices and stressing workers are supported.

“We value, respect and appreciate the hard work of all of our employees,” Bradford said. “We believe in and are proud to  provide a safe, healthy and fair workplace environment for our employees and guests.”

The entertainment and sports company works with a collection of contractors and subcontractors to hire employees. That dynamic is similar at Ford Field, which lists several other companies that hire parking attendants, retail associates, food and beverage workers, ticket takers and cleaners. 

Charlestta Wilson, organizing coordinator with SEIU Local 1, said the fragmented nature of work relationships at the downtown sports venues is part of the issue.

“We started with arena workers because you have lots of people who work for the same employer in the same building but their working conditions, rate of pay, their scheduling vary a lot because they work for different contractors,” Wilson said. “Sometimes they may be covered by a union contract and others are not. The goal for the standards board is to bring those workers to a table to talk to the employers and communicate what baseline standards should be.” 

Under the city’s ordinance, the nine-member industry standards board is comprised of workers, employer representatives and city officials. The group, once established, is required to report causes of worker shortages and high turnover, what level of compensation is needed to support families and standards to improve the health of workers.

The board can investigate worker conditions, hold public hearings, forward complaints to enforcement agencies, request information from employers and gather information through surveys. Recommendations are delivered to the City Council, which can hold additional hearings and pursue enforcement action based on the findings.

Wilson said the ordinance is an important tool for workers to improve their conditions.

“It is not legal for the city to set minimum standards – they can’t set a $15 hour minimum wage – but we believe that if the employers actually get a chance to hear from all workers, the employer would respond,” Wilson said. “It’s not like a union contract where it’s enforceable by law, but we do believe that if employers and the public understand what the needs are, this will make progress.”

One major problem arena workers face, she added, is the unpredictable scheduling.

“If you’re going to work for someone, you should have the ability to plan because they’re going to hold you to a standard of being at work on time,” Wilson said. 

Establishing the board starts with a petition drive. At least 150 valid worker signatures must be turned in to the City Clerk. The number of valid signatures is determined by the Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department (CRIO) and reported to the City Council.

The City Council then has 45 days to adopt a resolution establishing the industry standards board.

Industry standards boards can also be created at the request of the mayor or City Council, under Detroit’s ordinance. The board is dissolved one year after issuing recommendations, or after two years if no recommendations are issued. Workers can request the board to be reconvened, however. 

If a standards board is established, Mayor Mike Duggan will appoint three members, including one worker representative, one management or employer association representative, and one other person from the mayor’s office. The City Council will appoint the remaining six members, including two workers, two employer representatives, a member of the public and one council representative.

The board’s members are not paid and employers are prohibited from retaliating against any employees who participate. Meetings must be open to the public and comply with the Open Meetings Act.

Similar standards boards are active in other major cities, but Detroit’s ordinance is the first that applies to multiple industries.

Wilson said petition signatures were collected from “workers all over the spectrum,” including janitorial staff, security officers, camera operators and more. A dozen SEIU members dropped off the signatures Tuesday, but Wilson spoke on behalf of the group.

SEIU Michigan represents nearly 30,000 workers across the state in the healthcare industry, the public sector and in property services. 

Ricardo Segura Jr., an SEIU spokesperson based in Chicago, said the SEIU action in Detroit is “an important step forward, particularly for underpaid Black and brown workers who have long been denied the chance to thrive and have a say in workplace conditions that impact them.”

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