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No Clean Ending

Laid off janitors lose limelight but hope to win struggle

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On April 8, the Service Employees International Union Local 3 staged a "die-in" at the lobby of Centre City Tower on Smithfield Street Downtown. They were protesting the firing of nine janitors, who lost their jobs three months earlier when the building's manager dropped its unionized cleaning contractor for a nonunion outfit. The dismissal came on the heels of the union negotiating a new contract for the cleaners that increased wages and made family health benefits affordable for the first time.

 

At protest's end, three-dozen supporters stayed in the building's lobby to await arrest, a move intended to draw public attention to a six-day hunger strike by former janitor Harriet Bryant and Local 3 director Gabe Morgan on the sidewalk outside. Hours later, County Executive Dan Onorato called for an end to public protests and urged negotiations between the union and building management.

 

Today, the sidewalk and lobby are quiet. "We're honoring the county executive's request," Morgan says.

 

Centre City manager Linda Fryz says her position today is no different from that of April 8 -- building management doesn't hire janitors directly; it hires the subcontractor. "Because these janitors were never employed by us and we never had an agreement, [Onorato's] request is confusing," she says. "We have no relationship with [the janitors]. ... The ownership and management [of the building] made a business decision."

 

Since January, SEIU has turned out a passel of Pittsburgh public figures to denounce the janitors' dismissal, including clergy, Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea, NAACP head Tim Stevens, the Urban League's Esther Bush, state Sen. Jim Ferlo and City Councilor Sala Udin -- whose mother was once a janitor and who helped secure a unanimous declaration of support for the janitors from city council.

 

But what good does it do to line up support of Pittsburghers and turn out hundreds of people in winter covered in a mummy's layers of SEIU T-shirts and hoodies when the buck -- or the big bucks, as it turns out -- doesn't stop in Pittsburgh at all?

 

Fryz's company seems to manage only this building (where City Paper has its offices), and the private company created to own the building is incorporated in Delaware, which, for a very low annual fee, allows companies to avoid the property, payroll and income taxes that would be levied in their home states. Delaware also typically has fewer board and bylaw requirements and allows for greater anonymity than other states.

 

The principal owner is Edwin L. Knetzger III of Greenwich, Conn., the president of Independence Enterprises (which is itself the primary partner for Centre City Limited Partnership). 

 

Knetzger took only one phone call from City Paper -- in March, when he happened to pick up the phone himself. He reacted with surprise when informed that a demonstration of several hundred people had taken place that day outside his building. "I know very little about it," he said of the labor dispute. "I have been to the building -- not often, by the way."

 

Greenwich, Conn., is also home to Knetzger's much larger and more public business, RBS Greenwich Capital, an investment firm on Long Island Sound. In 2000, the firm was acquired by the Royal Bank of Scotland, but as of 2003 Knetzger was still vice chairman of subsidiary Greenwich Capital Holdings Inc. By trading in U.S. Treasury products and debt held by foreign countries, Greenwich Capital literally moves money around the world.

 

Janitors may wish Knetzger ran his Pittsburgh building the way he runs his Connecticut investment firm. According to Greenwich Capital's Web site: "While we come to work each day to pursue a career and help our firm and customers succeed, it is right that our time here also be infused with laughter, camaraderie, friendship, and a sense of shared purpose. This is more, however, than simply a progressive view of the ideal worklife. It is also essential to our businessmodel, which depends upon the recruitment and retention of outstanding individuals."

 

Knetzger co-founded Greenwich Capital with William J. Rainer, who is also a partner in Centre City. Rainer is probably best known as the former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to which he was appointed during the Clinton administration. Now, Rainer is chairman and CEO of One Chicago, an all-electronic futures market created by established trading venues including the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

 

Centre City manager Linda Fryz says Rainer called her to say he wouldn't be returning calls from City Paper. "He's a minority partner and really isn't involved in this," she reports. Fryz maintains that the janitorial switch was an "owner and management decision." Asked if she was the main decision-maker, she repeated the phrase and would not elaborate. In April, she told City Paper that Knetzger was no longer making decisions about the building. Yet Fryz insisted, "I am not acting alone."

 

"[Knetzger's] the person who could resolve this in a phone call," says SEIU attorney Mike Healey. Given that Knetzger has no obvious family or business ties to Western Pennsylvania, he adds, "The mystery is why Knetzger has ownership in Pittsburgh in the first place. These are very large money people. They probably live in houses worth more than Centre City Tower" -- which is assessed at about $12 million by Allegheny County.

 

To SEIU's chagrin, the pair of investors has often supported the same political candidates as the union.

 

According to OpenSecrets.org, the campaign finance data Web site created by the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton-appointee Rainer gave $45,000 over the last 10 years to Democratic candidates and committees, including Clinton and senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and presidential candidate John Kerry.

 

Knetzger has been even more generous, giving roughly $75,000 over the past 10 years. Most of his recipients have been Democrats, such as Dodd, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. Hillary Clinton. This year, however, he's tossed $3,000 to at least one Republican: George W. Bush.

 

Meanwhile, SEIU members have launched a massive nationwide grassroots organizing effort to elect John Kerry as president in November. "This is the problem with the Democratic Party for us," says the union's Morgan. "You've got working people saying 'Get out the vote for national health care,' then you've got these guys firing us over health care. You can't help but feel like you're being used."

 

The dismissed cleaners feel at a loss: What haven't they tried? They've held over a dozen protests, as well as the hunger strike. Their six months' unemployment is almost up. Several are maintaining their health care through the federal COBRA program at about $300 a month -- almost half a monthly unemployment check. The union's trying to plug them into other SEIU shops locally, and as temps in various Downtown office buildings.

 

Their replacements are employed by a small Baden company called PF Enterprise, a subsidiary of Nova Cleaning Systems. In a memo to tenants dated Jan. 15, Fryz wrote, "Cleaning costs for 2004 will be significantly less than last year even though the staff has been increased."

 

All 800 unionized janitorial jobs Downtown are now perhaps at risk, since they share the same indirect business arrangement by which the buildings' owners and managers hire cleaning subcontractors. As additional cleaning companies' agreements expire, the union fears that other managers will seek follow Centre City's example. The worst-case scenario happened in the mid-1980s, when building owners began outsourcing cleaning contracts, breaking the union's hold and driving down wages. The current union presence has been rebuilt slowly since then.

 

Also at stake is the very existence of full-time jobs for "unskilled" workers that offer benefits and a living wage ($9-12 per hour, or $18,000 to $23,000 a year). 

 

According to the laid-off janitors themselves, nonunion cleaning jobs typically pay $6-8 per hour and "are part time to begin with ... because they don't want to get into benefits," says Tim Golling of McKees Rocks, who worked at Centre City for three years before losing his job.

 

Reached in February by City Paper, Frank Kratz of PF Enterprise insisted that his cleaners in Centre City were paid more than minimum wage, which is $5.15 per hour, but that the actual rate of pay was "none of your business." Individual PF cleaners report wages of $6-7 per hour.

 

In memos, Fryz has hinted that Centre City tenants would enjoy lower costs due to the switch to lower-paid janitors, but she declined in an interview to give specifics or show documentation. Tenants who have backed the janitors -- such as the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Consumer Health Coalition -- say they haven't yet seen any change.

 

In an interview in April, Fryz said, "People are thanking me for what I've done" -- but wouldn't name anyone specific. She says the labor dispute hasn't hurt the building financially or in its public image. Since the labor dispute began, Centre City has leased "three different office spaces, including two whole floors." She believes the building's occupancy rate of 94 percent is higher than other Downtown buildings.

 

The National Labor Relations Board filed last month for an injunction against the union for "enmeshing neutrals," says regional NLRB director Gerald Kobell. Because the owners and management of Centre City Tower were not the janitors' employer, they're legally considered a neutral party. After negotiations, the judge agreed not to proceed with the injunction request, with the understanding that a hearing could be scheduled promptly if the NLRB believes the union is drawing Centre City into its protests.

 

The legal target for such protests, say NLRB rules, are the laid-off janitors' subcontractor or the current cleaning subcontractor, PF Enterprise. After the dispute began, Fryz hung a sign on Centre City's main Smithfield Street entrance indicating that PF Enterprise employees must use the building's side entrance, on Seventh Avenue. Presumably, this would also re-direct future protests to the side of the building as well.

SEIU's Morgan says the NLRB rules are irrelevant, since there's no point in protesting small cleaning contractors who have no reason or ability to employ janitors without a building contract. For the moment, he says, they've taken their message behind the scenes, hoping to solidify Onorato's support and to add more high-profile leaders -- possibly Gov. Ed Rendell -- to their friends list.

 

SEIU also has its own legal iron slowly smoldering: They've filed a federal suit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act against Independence/Centre City. However, Healey says, that could easily take a year to work its way through the system.

 

Says former Centre City Tower janitor and hunger-striker Harriet Bryant: "Whoever's got a hold on this building, no one's budging."

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