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No Food for Thought

Hunger strike continues protest for Centre City janitor and union organizer Harriet Bryant's last meal was ribs, potato salad and corn on the cob.

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It's been three months since Bryant lost her job cleaning Downtown's Centre City Tower, and her 26 weeks of unemployment is nearly halfway up. Could be worse, she says. Still, on April 5 Bryant started going hungry by choice, and says she intends to fast until she and her eight co-workers are given their jobs back.

 

In an ad hoc tent on Smithfield Street, Bryant was joined by a janitors' union rep, Service Employees International Union Local 3 Director Gabe Morgan, who joined the hunger strike, and a few of Bryant's co-workers, who huddled around a wooden cable spool playing cards near a blasting kerosene heater. Bryant, in her 50s, said she'd "never been one to diet" but was still cheerful.

 

So far, Bryant is the only janitor to announce her intentions to go hungry. According to the janitors' union, the average tenure of the Centre City cleaners was 11 years. Several older cleaners have health conditions that make it dangerous to fast, including Lorraine Woods, who has high blood pressure. Two of the younger men on the crew have small children at home: Ed Plesniak's wife is likely to deliver their second child this week, while Stan Jones is raising his school-age nephew. The cleaners are -- for now -- entitled to continue to buy into their health plan at group rates under the 1986 federal COBRA law, which is still no small cut from an unemployment check.

 

Health benefits for Downtown janitors have been the core issue of this labor dispute. The crew lost their jobs days before the New Year, when they learned Independence Management (also known as Independence Enterprises and Centre City Partners) had dropped the cleaners' official employer, St. Moritz Building Services, and replaced St. Moritz with a nonunion company. Less than three months prior, SEIU had finished negotiating a contract that halved the cost of family health insurance for about 800 Downtown janitors employed by various subcontractors. Union wages for Downtown janitors are $9-12 per hour.

Also on April 5, Linda Fryz, building manager for Centre City Tower, said that the union would drop its unfair labor charges filed with the federal National Labor Relations Board. SEIU spokesman Tom Hoffman says the union was continuing its federal suit, which he believes is more useful because it allows the union to obtain documents through discovery and seek a jury trial. But, he says, "The major fight is in the street."

 

On April 4, the night before the hunger strike began, about 50 janitors and supporters gathered at Centre City Tower for a candlelight vigil in gusty winds. Bryant told the crowd, "This is not just for my job, this is for all your jobs."

 

Bill Brownfield of McKeesport, who cleans in the USX tower, said there was a danger of other building managers following Centre City's example. "If we let this go, the same thing could happen to us -- they could go nonunion. Don't you think we have a right to a good wage and health insurance?"

 

"Harriet is doing something this union has never done," Morgan told the crowd, still struggling to keep their candles lit. "If we don't stop this, you run the risk of getting fired with each contract we sign. This is the fight for health care. Nobody in this town wages the fight like we do. And nobody will unless we take it further."

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