Thousands of City Janitors Authorize Strike

They clean 168 Philadelphia office buildings including the Comcast Center and Cira Centre.

Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU. Photo by Matt Stanley.

Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU. Photo by Matt Stanley.

The union representing 2,800 janitors who clean 168 Center City office buildings — including the Comcast Center and Cira Centre — has voted to authorize a strike amidst negotiations for a new contract. The 32BJ SEIU union has been negotiating with Building Owners Labor Relations Inc. since September 3 but failed to come to an agreement. Negotiations are ongoing, but the union now has the ability to strike if no deal is reached before the Thursday deadline.

That could mean messy offices, trash piling up and elevators and HVAC systems running without anyone to fix potential problems.

The main sticking points? Health care and pensions. With janitors making $15 to $17 per hour (and its small amount of engineers making $23-$26 per hour), any diminishing of benefits would cost workers dearly, said Daisy Cruz, Mid-Atlantic district leader for the union.

Let’s start with health care. The union claims that their employer has now asked workers to make a contribution toward their health care plans but the union wants it to remain fully employer paid. While it’s no secret that most workers don’t have completely free health care, Cruz argues that it’s essential to union workers because of their low pay.

“These workers are maintaining and cleaning some of the most beautiful buildings in Center City,” said Cruz. “They’re working for some of the richest people here in the City of Philadelphia and just barely making above the poverty level to take care of their families, keep a roof over their heads and pay bills.”

Then there’s pensions. Management wants to freeze pensions and the union wants them ongoing, according to Cruz. While pensions are getting more and more rare these days, Cruz argues that they’re essential after a long, physically taxing career.

“No one can live off these pensions. It’s like a stool, you need three parts of a stool to hold yourself up and pensions are just one part,” she said. “These people are working, killing bodies for all these years to make sure that when you go into a building, the trash is empty and you’re coming into a clean environment.”

But this isn’t the first time 32BJ SEIU threatened to strike. It did so during in 2007 and 2011, but did not initiate a work stoppage.

On Tuesday, the union held a rally at 1515 Market Street, the site of the strike authorization vote. On September 30, it held a rally in Center City.

After the rally, the Building Owners Labor Relations (BOLR) offered its first economic proposal to the union, according to Robert Martin, president of BOLR. While he wouldn’t get into specifics because he didn’t want to “negotiate this in the press,” he did say the proposal is aimed at containing health and wellness benefit costs and makes modifications to the pension plan. It won’t freeze pensions, he said.

“The ball is in their court,” said Martin who called the strike authorization a standard development in these situations. “They’re going to review it and get back to us tomorrow.”