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Cleaning Their Plates Again

Pair end hunger strike over janitors, for now

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On the second day of their hunger strike, laid-off janitor Harriet Bryant and Service Employees Union International Local 3 director Gabe Morgan seemed tired and maybe anxious.

 

"Is it OK to drink tea?" Morgan asked, holding up a Starbucks cup with tea-bag tags dangling down the side.

 

The pair's white tent on Smithfield Street, which had looked forlorn earlier that week, soon filled up with armchairs, board games, cigarettes, a wooden cable spool on which Bryant and Morgan played dominos and cards, and newspapers with coverage of the week's rallies.

 

Three months ago, Bryant and eight co-workers were laid off when their employer, St. Moritz Building Services, lost the Centre City Tower account to a nonunion cleaning contractor that pays much lower wages (about $6.50 per hour, according to several of the janitors, compared to the union's $9-12 per hour), and offers part-time jobs with no benefits. The switch followed the completion of contract negotiations that awarded about 800 Downtown janitors affordable family health insurance for the first time. Although Centre City represents only nine cleaning jobs, SEIU has decided to take a stand here, fearing that other building owners may circumvent the new contract. Although SEIU has filed a federal suit in the matter, legal protections for these workers, who are technically employees of various subcontractors, are few. The union's most sympathetic court may be that of public opinion.

 

On April 8, as many as 200 people flooded Centre City's lobby. Three dozen -- many wearing "Starving For Healthcare" flags -- stayed behind to wait for arrest. Police officers leisurely patted down and cuffed the protesters with plastic restraints; the search of one middle-aged woman turned up a box of Girl Scout cookies. They were led through a gauntlet of cheering supporters to the police wagons. The officer in charge jokingly asked the remaining protesters if they'd be willing not to get arrested. "We have to get another wagon, and it's gonna take a while," he said.

 

That afternoon, the week's rain and cold had lifted; someone had erected a mailbox outside, reading "650½ Lockout Lane."

 

"I don't even want steak," Bryant said, "I just want a nice big burger!"

 

That day, she got her wish: On a radio call-in show, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato called for bargaining and asked SEIU to stop public protests. He had not offered to mediate, stressed his spokesperson, Bridget Fare. However, she said, "He's asking them both to talk through a resolution."

 

The union would suspend the hunger strike, Morgan said, and agreed to work with Onorato. "If it doesn't work out, we'll pick up where we left off," he added.

 

Centre City Building Manager Linda Fryz said she would meet with Onorato too -- "to let him know the facts," at least. But she did not indicate that she would meet with the union. Her position of the last three months remained unchanged: that the management and ownership of Centre City Tower has nothing to do with the building's janitors. "Because these janitors were never employed by us and we never had an agreement, his request is confusing," she said. "We have no relationship with [the janitors]. What the union's trying to say is we're supposed to take responsibility for these employees."

 

The current cleaners, employed by PF Enterprises, are not Centre City's responsibility either, she says. "I don't know what PF Enterprise pays or its benefits," Fryz said. "I do not engage in how other people run their businesses. When we bid something out we look at the bottom line." Fryz says building management was considering a new cleaning subcontractor prior to SEIU's new contract.

 

"I do feel bad that these [former] janitors are being used as a pawn," she added. "Instead of trying to get these people jobs somewhere else, [SEIU has] wasted time and money."

 

"I don't think that's fair," Bryant responded. "We had a choice to be in this fight or not. The union works for us, not us for them. We want to make sure you can't do this in Pittsburgh -- sign a contract, then lose your job -- and we'll hopefully get a law passed to keep it from happening again."

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