Philadelphia –Just three days after the Pope extolled the virtues of the labor movement at Independence Hall, more than 2,000 32BJ SEIU janitors gathered in Center City in support of nearly 75,000 East coast janitors who are negotiating for fair wages and benefits this fall. As the real estate market continues to rake in huge profits, thousands of janitors are fighting to maintain health and retirement benefits and are calling for wages to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“I have been cleaning Center City office buildings for decades. It is a physically demanding job and takes its toll after many years. But over the years, we have fought to turn these low-wage jobs into good jobs with benefits,” said Juanita Acree, a cleaner at Liberty Place who lives in West Philly. “We’re not asking to get rich. We are fighting for good jobs that lift our communities.”
More than 2,500 people gathered at 2116 Chestnut Street, a luxury high-rise building whose management company Greystar has recently come under fire for illegally displacing union workers after taking over management of the building. Democratic candidate for Mayor, Jim Kenney offered his support for the displaced workers.
“Philadelphia can be a city of opportunity for everyone. We can have high-rises and still ensure that Philadelphians who work full-time earn enough to support their families,” said Kenney. “But to do that, we have to come together to solve income inequality. This is not a war on the rich or on corporations. It’s an acknowledgement that we cannot thrive as a city if over a quarter of our neighbors are mired in poverty.”
With members of City Council standing in support, 32BJ SEIU leaders demanded the reinstatement of the workers. “2116 Chestnut’s management thinks that when they’re cutting costs, they should start at the bottom. They don’t cut the CEO’s salary. They come after hard-working cleaners and security officers,” said Gabe Morgan, PA Director and Vice President of 32BJ SEIU. “We won’t rest until the 2116 Chestnut workers get their jobs back.”
Janitors and other property service workers made the trip to Center City from Massachusetts to Virginia. They’re part of the largest private sector contract negotiations taking place in the country this year, with more than 130,000 workers nationwide negotiating contracts that will affect the lives of close to half a million men, women and children.
“For 30 years, janitors have stood together and fought for higher wages and job standards. And it’s paid off – today, more than 40% of SEIU janitors make more than $15 an hour. We’ve proven that underpaid service jobs can be good jobs, and paved the way for today’s low wage worker movements,” said Valarie Long, the International Executive Vice President of the Property Services Division of the SEIU.
Four years ago when the janitors last bargained a contract, the country was in a recession. Since that time, vacancy rates in major East coast cities like Philadelphia have dropped. As the commercial real estate industry has boomed, a low-wage worker movement has emerged with fast food workers, airport workers and many janitors demanding $15 an hour and a union.
“Building owners are making a lot of money. But while their profits go up, so does the cost of nearly everything else,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU. “Rent, gas bills, transportation, groceries have all been on the rise. Our pay must keep pace with the cost of living or we all fall behind. These are the kinds of jobs that keep communities going and that build cities. These are the jobs that raise America.”
In the wake of the papal visit, during which Pope Francis spoke at Independence Hall extolling the labor movement and other founding principles, supporters were quick to connect the Pope’s message of justice and fairness to the workers’ plight.
“I feel a moral obligation to stand with the hardworking men and women who keep our city clean and safe. This is more than a fight for a good contract,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER). “This is a fight against poverty, for the future of our city.”
With 145,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 22,000 in Pennsylvania, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.