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Pickets and Charges

SEIU janitors to picket Centre City Tower; some tenants protest firings

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The 10 janitors who lost their jobs three weeks ago at Downtown's Centre City Tower will begin picketing Jan. 21 with their fellow union members. As of last week, Centre City's former janitors were still trying to jump through hoops to get their first unemployment checks. Said one cleaner, who asked not to be named, "I worked here six years. I've never been on unemployment -- never in my life got laid off."

 

According to Gabe Morgan, Pittsburgh director of Service Employees International Union Local 3, cleaners and other union members plan to picket from 7 a.m. until midnight. "We would expect the other union workers in the building, operating engineers, people doing construction, UPS" to not cross the picket line, Morgan says. "At this point we haven't decided whether we'll picket indefinitely."

 

At stake are 800 union cleaning jobs Downtown, picket organizers contend. SEIU believes that the cleaners' sudden dismissal is an attempt to dump the union and get out of new contract provisions that took effect Nov. 1, which SEIU negotiated with the Managers, Owners and Contractors Association (MOCA), a bargaining group representing several major office towers. The contract raised wages 40 cents per hour -- union cleaners make $9-12 per hour -- and, most significantly, reduced the cost of family health care for janitors from $470 to $200 per month. Those negotiations took place in Centre City Tower itself.

 

The union fears that if there's no successful legal recourse -- and if public opposition to these firings isn't strong -- other building managers may try to follow Centre City's example.

 

The SEIU's decision to picket follows two weeks of leafleting and a petition drive outside Centre City. On Jan. 14, SEIU announced that it had filed five charges of unfair labor practices with the federal National Labor Relations Board (see News Briefs: "Fighting Clean," Jan. 14). This week, the union filed a lawsuit based on the anti-discrimination provisions of the federal ERISA law (Employee Retirement Income Security Act). Joining SEIU's Mike Healey as counsel were law professors Jules Lobel of the University of Pittsburgh and Tom Kerr of Carnegie Mellon University.

 

Independence Management Vice President Linda Fryz, who manages Centre City Tower, told City Paper on Jan. 2 that she didn't "fire" the janitors, "because they are not our employees; they work for a cleaning contractor." Fryz has not returned any subsequent phone calls.

 

Officially, the cleaners were employees of subcontractor St. Moritz Building Services, which was hired by Independence Management. But both St. Moritz and Independence are members of MOCA -- and according to SEIU both signed the contract. That contract contains "successor" language allowing managers to switch contractors while still protecting janitors' jobs in the building, the union says. Anna Kinsey, one of the janitors told to clean out their lockers on Dec. 30, says she's worked for four different employers under this provision in her 25 years at Centre City.

 

The day after SEIU announced its NLRB charges at a press conference, Fryz distributed a memo to Centre City tenants (who include City Paper and its owner, Steel City Media), saying that "St. Moritz participated in the bid process, but lost the contract to a competitor" as of Jan. 1.

 

The SEIU's Morgan disputes this: "If there was a bidding process, St. Moritz was not involved, nor were any contractors who clean buildings Downtown -- and the only reason to do that would be to exclude union contractors because the Downtown cleaning firms are all union." (St. Moritz is now referring calls to their attorney, who did not return a phone call.)

 

The Fryz memo also said that quality was an issue: "In October 2003, complaints about the cleaning service increased by 30 percent and continued thorough the end of the year."

 

"This strains reason," responds Karen Wolk Feinstein, executive director of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which has been a Centre City tenant for 13 years. Feinstein and two other tenants with whom that organization collaborates, Ken Segel of the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative and Geoff Webster of the Consumer Health Coalition, penned a letter to Fryz protesting the janitors' fate. "The average stay of the janitors was 11 years," Feinstein says, "and in October they suddenly had all these complaints. 'Complaints up 30 percent' -- what does that mean?" In their letter, the three organization heads praised the stability of the cleaning staff, which "provided remarkable service and security."

 

"The letter says [tenants] got a cost reduction," Segel adds. "I was never asked, 'Would you rather feel better about having people have health care, or pay less?' Now [the janitors] are not just worried about health care; they're also worried about how to feed their families."

 

The letter requested a meeting with Fryz, which, as of last week, had not yet occurred. "Her indifference to meeting us is strange," Feinstein says, "when it's a buyer's market." According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, vacancy rates Downtown, though lower than in suburban and neighborhood locations, rose in 2003 to 17.2 percent.

 

"If you're quiet, that's agreement," Feinstein says. "I think people who work for our organization would've been very disappointed in me if I didn't say anything. It was very reassuring to say we live our values."

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