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Protests Mark Center's Opening

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"It's gonna be fun," says Jason Guard, who is standing a block away with a group of about 20 people bundled against the cold. They are here today, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the city's newly expanded convention center, to protest low wages paid to contract employees who helped build and clean this place.

"I'm here for a living wage," says Muhammad Abdul-Rahman, who works for local temp agencies that have contracts with the city to send workers to the center. The current strategy is not only unjust but a waste of money, he says: "The city's paying them $10 to $15 an hour, and we're getting only $5.15."

The city's Coalition for a Living Wage is an alliance of several groups that want the city to extend the "living wage" it already pays its employees — estimated at $8.70 plus health benefits — to contract workers. It's a request city leaders have now been hearing for years. Will an appearance at the city's new prize make a difference?

The protesters pepper City Manager Calvin Jamison with questions as he walks by. When the ceremony begins inside, they head toward the entrance of the hall waving signs and chanting. "No no no!" says a policeman, who turns them aside at the door.

Instead, the group proceeds down Marshall Street, standing and shouting in front of a wide window. Center staff back them up to the sidewalk. Is this disrupting the ceremony? one man is asked. Face set, he shakes his head no.

Many of the hundreds inside turn to look, but inside the carpeted hall, the shouts fade into a faint roar. The group gets dirty looks when they cheer after breaking a symbolic paper chain, just as the Rev. John E. Johnson says amen after his invocation. One mother takes her three children outside to experience a real protest.

After about an hour, the protesters depart. The speeches inside conclude with an explosion of confetti and a grand drop of balloons. Everyone heads off for free hot dogs. Two women in cleaning uniforms wait upstairs, regarding the litter of paper below. — Melissa Scott

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