Swept Away | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

News+Features » News

Swept Away

On the heels of a new union contract, 10 Downtown janitors lose their jobs

by

comment

Lorraine Woods of Bellevue had been cleaning bathrooms Downtown for 13 years, starting at 10 each night and working until rush hour begins. "You get used to it, you get a routine," she says. Jan. 11 would have marked her 16th anniversary cleaning Centre City Tower, a Downtown office building.

 

"We worked Christmas night," she says. "We come in Monday, and we were told, 'Clean out your lockers, you're done Tuesday.' We had no inkling, we never knew. For someone who had come in every day, you'd think you'd be told something."

 

On that day, the cleaners at Centre City Tower learned that the building's management company, Independence Management, had decided not to renew its cleaning contract with St. Moritz Building Services. Even though Independence Vice President Linda Fryz insists they didn't "fire" the janitors -- "because they are not our employees; they work for a cleaning contractor" -- Woods and her nine co-workers are suddenly out of work.

 

Woods' union, the Service Employees International Union, just won a new contract for its approximately 800 Downtown cleaners in November. The Centre City janitors' unexpected dismissal is an apparent response to the contract, and union leaders want to make sure that these 10 layoffs aren't the first of many.

 

Fryz declined to answer further questions and would not tell City Paper, which with parent company Steel City Media happens to be a Centre City tenant, who made the decision, or name any building owners.

 

Axing the janitors nullifies long-sought gains that took effect Nov. 1 under the new contract between the Service Employees International Union and the Managers Owners and Contractors Association, which handles negotiations for several major Downtown buildings. Independence Management and St. Moritz Building Services are MOCA members.

 

In addition to wage increases -- janitors start at about $9.30 per hour and can now make $12.12 after three years -- the new contract reduced health-insurance premiums for employees' family members, from $470 to $200. For many, this change made family insurance affordable for the first time.

 

According to St. Moritz Building Services Vice President Mike Moninger, his company attempted to pass on some of the costs of the new contract -- he won't say how much more St. Moritz asked for -- to its clients. St. Moritz employees clean eight Downtown high-rises, Moninger says, but contracts weren't canceled anywhere else. "We don't like to lose the business either," he says.

 

Changing contractors is not uncommon for Downtown office-building managers. Typically, the janitors continue to work in the same building and become the official employees of a different -- also unionized -- company. This "successor" provision is written into the contract between the union and the management group. "Forever and ever, when they switch contractors, [the new contractors] just take on the janitors," says the SEIU spokesperson Tom Hoffman. "That's how it's supposed to work."

 

Centre City Tower's most senior janitor, 25-year veteran Anna Kinsey, of Mount Washington, has worked for "at least four" employers during her time there -- including the building owners themselves, in the pre-subcontractor days. The fact that the janitorial staff was sent away this time suggests that Independence Management intends to hire non-union cleaners.

 

Independence Management's Fryz would not say who the new cleaners at Centre City Tower are; the fired janitors and SEIU don't know yet, either. On Jan. 5, many of those laid off came to the building to re-apply under the new set-up. They were told to leave the premises. Even as Kinsey was asking a security guard whether she would still be allowed to visit her lawyer, Centre City tenant Brian Walters, a building manager, apparently spotted her on the security camera and asked the guard to order her out, she says. Only one of the cleaners reported being able to reach Fryz by phone.

 

"This is the first job I ever had," Kinsey says, "because I was married before." Kinsey is now a widow. "I was completely in shock. Everybody's saying, 'What are you gonna do now?' Twenty-five years, it's all down the drain. When you're 57, do you go to Eat'n  Park, to McDonald's, where? Do you have to go back to minimum wage?" Kinsey (the only daytime cleaner at Centre City) had also been working a half-time job at night, but that job offers no benefits. Though Kinsey and her co-workers could probably become substitute cleaners, or "extras," at other buildings handled by St. Moritz, no other full-time slots are currently available.

 

Although Centre City Tower is thus far the only Downtown office building to follow the janitors' new contract by dumping their cleaning contractor, it may not be the last. The actions of Independence Management reveals the janitors' and the union's vulnerability in a business environment of multi-layered contractors and subcontractors, in which no one is directly accountable for the working conditions and job security of their employees.

 

"Those cleaning contracts," the SEIU's Hoffman explains, "all of them have a 30-day escape clause" -- so if a building manager decides to end the contract, neither the cleaning contractor nor the cleaners appear to have much legal recourse. "That's why it's so important for the janitors to stick together to enforce the contract, for the union to be strong. That's why we're taking this very seriously -- we don't want it to spread. It's always a danger."

Add a comment