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Downtown Janitors Hunt for Absentee Landlord

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About two dozen union janitors and sympathizers set off on a bus trip Sept. 29 to find the Connecticut-based absentee landlord of Centre City Tower, a Downtown office building whose nine-member cleaning crew lost their jobs just after Christmas in 2003.

 

Gabe Morgan, Service Employees International Local 3 director, promises a "door-knocking campaign," complete with fliers and even visits to fancy restaurants in Greenwich, Conn., the old-money bedroom community where Edwin T. Knetzger III, co-founder of securities-trading firm Greenwich Capital, lives. Union members plan to film it all in the style of Roger & Me, which documented Michael Moore's 1989 mission to find General Motors chairman Roger Smith.

 

"I just want to meet Ted Knetzger," says former Centre City cleaner Harriet Bryant, who got on the bus last week. "He might be tired of this shit, too. It's not the money [at issue], 'cause he's got that."

Knetzger was nowhere on the scene when Centre City's cleaners found themselves out of work. Due to the layers of shell companies and subcontracting typical in the building-management and cleaning industries, it's nearly impossible for Bryant or SEIU to deal with the person who can actually make a decision in their working lives. In this case, the buck stops with Knetzger, but he was not technically Bryant's boss: His building-owning company hires a management company who hires a cleaning company whose number of employees is determined by the work they're offered by building owners.

 

Just a month before they were let go, it had seemed the Centre City janitors' jobs would be getting better, based on a contract SEIU had just negotiated in late 2003. For the first time, approximately 800 Downtown janitors had won affordable family health insurance. Unlike most nonunion cleaners, they already had individual healthcare and worked full time instead of part time, albeit for modest wages starting at $9 per hour.

 

But just weeks after the contract was signed, the Centre City cleaners were fired. Most were long-term employees; one cleaner had been there 25 years. Centre City Tower had their union cleaning contractor, St. Moritz Building Services, dropped for PF Enterprise, a nonunion cleaner that pays lower wages and doesn't offer health insurance. Centre City manager Linda Fryz has defended the change as a "business decision," and Knetzger has given no comment.

Since then, SEIU has picketed Centre City regularly, including a sit-in that led to the arrests of Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea and others. Morgan and Bryant even went on a four-day hunger strike in April of last year.

There's a special sting in the fact that Knetzger isn't just any old plutocrat, but one who has financial and even personal ties to Democratic politicians that unions have loyally supported -- namely, senators Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. (Perhaps hedging his bets, Knetzger has given generously to Republicans, too.)

Morgan hopes protesting this labor-unfriendly donor will send a message to "some organizations that always ask us to walk precincts for them" -- in other words, the Democrats. "Working people have lost their power, because we're always having to choose the lesser evil," he laments.

At least, SEIU's janitors may finally see Knetzger in court here. November 28 is the scheduled trial date for a civil suit SEIU has pending in the affair, alleging that Knetzger's company unlawfully deprived the janitors of health benefits.

In the meantime, SEIU will be offering Greenwichers a reward for any information that leads to Knetzger: a six-pack of union-brewed Iron City Beer.

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