Ayana Jones Tribune Staff Writer
More than a thousand members of the property service workers union 32BJ SEIU marched through Center City and rallied in Rittenhouse Square on Thursday to demand that janitors and other building service workers earn enough to be able to join the middle class.
Nearly 3,000 of the city’s office cleaners are covered under a union contract that expires on Oct. 15. 32BJ SEIU is negotiating with the Building Operators Labor Relations, which represents the city’s largest building owners and contractors.
And while the city is in the midst of a construction boom, the BOLR has proposed cuts to the cleaners’ benefits, union members said.
“If we can’t reach an agreement that moves us forward — that moves us into the middle class — that makes us able to take care of our families and our retirement, then we are going to shut this city down,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president and Pennsylvania director of 32BJ SEIU.
32BJ SEIU members work in about 120 office buildings across the city, including the FMC, Comcast and PECO buildings.
Representatives of the BOLR did not immediately return calls for comment on Thursday.
For the rally, local office cleaners were joined by 32BJ SEIU members from Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“We will fight for a contract that our brothers and sisters here who clean and maintain the buildings here in Philly earn and deserve,” said 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg.
“We are not asking for a lot. What we are asking for is justice. We want jobs that allow us to raise our families, so that we don’t have to make a choice between food and rent. That’s what we’ve earned and we want to make a dent in poverty in Philly.”
The unionized office cleaners earn an average of $17 per hour. The push for better wages and benefits comes as 75,000 office cleaners across the East Coast are bargaining for a contract this year. This is regarded as the largest private sector contract negotiation taking place in the country.
“We have to win here in Philly. We’ll be bargaining in our jurisdiction for over 70,000 office cleaners and if we don’t win here they are going to come after us everywhere,” Bragg said.
Mayor Jim Kenney was on hand to express his support for the unionized workers.
“You represent the soul of this city,” he told the workers. “You represent the lifeblood of this city and we need to make sure that you are treated with dignity and respect.”
Alisa Johnson, a lifelong resident of Philadelphia and member of 32BJ SEIU, highlighted the importance of fighting for better wages and benefits.
“I have seen a lot of changes (in the city),” she said. “The cost of rent is going sky high. The people in their neighborhoods are being forced out because they can’t afford to pay their rent.
Today, we are fighting not just for ourselves. Philadelphia should not just be for the rich. All we are asking for is to be able to take care of our families.”
Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of Philadelphia Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild (POWER), told the workers that his organization will stand with them until they get the wages, health care and pension benefits that they deserve.
“I recognize that when you win, this whole city can win,” he told the workers.
Holston said Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country and approximately 200,000 residents are living in deep poverty.
“I know that the only way that those individuals can win is if we build jobs that are middle class jobs,” he added.