Hundreds of unionized office cleaners, maintenance staff, mechanics and other building workers marched, chanted and carried picket signs and banners through Philadelphia’s center city on Aug. 29. The energetic march was held to demonstrate workers’ resolve for a just contract during negotiations between Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ and Building Owners Labor Relations, Inc. (BOLR), which began on Aug. 22.
The current contract expires Oct. 15, one of the first to expire among the 12 districts that 32BJ represents. It’s expected the final contract negotiated with BOLR, which represents hundreds of contracting companies and building owners, will set the pattern for other locals up and down the East Coast. Building workers came to the rally from 32BJ districts in New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C, and other East Coast cities.
Office cleaning jobs have been made more difficult since COVID-19, with the increased sanitary procedures to prevent the spread of diseases. The number of workers has been cut because of the pandemic’s effect on building occupancy, with higher vacancy rates in office buildings in Philadelphia and other cities. Some office buildings have also been converted to residences, eliminating more janitorial jobs.
These janitors have had to survive on starting wages of $20.14 an hour. They rely on their jobs to sustain their families, but building owners have proposed significant cuts in pay and reductions in benefits for the 2,000 Philly workers, sparking outrage among 32BJ members.
As the union members struggle with stagnant or falling wages amidst skyrocketing living costs, real estate giants like Brandywine Realty Trust and Silverstein Properties have thrived in Philadelphia as they profit from big increases in residential rent. The housing industry’s demands on workers to pay more hits low-paid workers the hardest, including 32BJ’s members.
Groups of banner-carrying workers from Brazil, India, Ital Pakistan, South Korea, Tunisia and other countries joined the march. They were in Philadelphia for the World Congress of UNI Global Union, “a global union federation for the skills and services sectors.” This international federation “has affiliated unions in 150 countries representing 20 million workers.” (uniglobalunion.org)
UNI’s presence and solidarity demonstrated that the fight for workers’ rights knows no borders.