BLOOMINGTON - Several aldermen are condemning tactics used by a local group who sent a letter asking county music singer Martina McBride to support a living wage for U.S. Cellular Coliseum workers.
"They are a bunch of thugs," said Alderman J. "Skip" Crawford said of the Central Illinois Organizing Project. "Their intent is to hold the Coliseum hostage if they don't get their way."
The group is pushing to get Coliseum workers paid $9.33 an hour, a rate they say will givesomeone working 40 hours a weeks enough for the rent on a single-bedroom apartment. The starting wage for ushers is $6.75 an hour.
"I think they are out of bounds, trying to coerce the city by talking to these entertainers," said Alderman Allen Gibson said. "What do these people know about our issues?"
The City Council, voted down a living wage ordinance by a 5-4 vote in November 2004. Since then the group has turned its attention to putting pressure on Central Illinois Arena Management.
"Just because the council voted on it doesn't mean it goes away," said Alderman Mike Matejka.
Alderman John Hanson said the living wage is a decision for the council. If the city forced a living wage at the Coliseum, they would be changing the terms of the 10-year contract between the city and the management company, he said.
In addition to speaking out against the group, aldermen including Crawford, Gibson, Kevin Huette and Jim Finnegan said they were concerned about Matejka's involvement.
"He is free to do what he wants to do but in my mind this should remove him from any future council action or votes tied to CIOP," Huette said.
Matejka's name is one of three on letter to McBride and under his name his work affiliation with the AFL-CIO and his position as a city alderman is listed.
Finnegan said he is unhappy with the letter and the group's March demonstration in the offices used by the Coliseum staff.
"These are attempts to intimidate staff," Finnegan said.
Rock singer John Mellencamp met with about nine members of the group including Matejka before his concert last month.
Unlike Mellencamp, Coliseum General Manager Mike Nelson said he has been told by McBride's publicist that McBride will not grant anymore interviews prior to her May 12 concert because she doesn't want to get involved.
Don Carlson, a spokesman for the advocacy group, said the thought that they control McBride and her interest in doing interviews is "ridiculous."
"There is no way CIOP should be used as a scapegoat for this," Carlson said. "We have always wanted the arena to succeed."
On Wednesday Nelson said he received an e-mail from McBride's promotion company with a message asking Nelson to call them immediately. Attached to the e-mail was a copy of the advocacy group's letter.
"So I called them and her publicist said Martina's people don't want her getting dragged into a local issue she knows nothing about," Nelson said. "I'm not making them a scapegoat, I am just telling you what I was told."
FrontPage Publicity, the group representing McBride, issued a statement that McBride would not comment on this issue.
"Martina is a country music artist. She is not running for office," the statement said. "Martina is looking forward to going to Bloomington and putting on a great show."
Matejka said the advocacy group never encouraged McBride not to conduct interviews.
"Maybe if Central Illinois Arena Management was willing to sit down and talk with community groups rather than stirring up false controversies, they wouldn't have this problem," Matejka said.
Despite the growing division between Coliseum management and the group, Mayor Steve Stockton said he believes a proposal to share profits from the Coliseum with employees could solve the issue for both.
Aldermen Karen Schmidt and Steven Purcell were not available.