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Loud protests against Downtown janitor firings may be first of many

Activists drumming on paint buckets Nov. 12 Downtown to protest the dismissal of nine union janitors who cleaned Centre City Tower on Smithfield Street could be heard at least 19 stories above the street, said workers inside during the noontime rally.

 

If protest organizers continue to accelerate their campaign against the firings, they hope to be heard much farther away than that.

 

In late 2003, union janitors who work in many buildings Downtown secured a contract that offered raises and, for the first time, affordable health insurance. But at the end of the year, Centre City Tower dropped its cleaning management company, effectively firing the union janitors, who were replaced by a non-union workforce.

 

After targeting the building's out-of-state owners for months, protesters have turned their sights now on Sky Bank. The bank is the Tower's most prominent tenant: Its lighted sign hangs near the top of the building while a branch office occupies the bottom floor (another tenant is Steel City Media, which owns City Paper). Sky Bank also holds the building's mortgage. About 25 people marched from one entrance of the building to another, heralded by the sound of buckets and a blaring megaphone, as if trying to breach Jericho.

"We're back and we're not going anywhere," said one of the organizers, De'Anna Caliguiri (pictured, with bullhorn), a social-work major at the University of Pittsburgh as well as an intern at the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield. While Centre City security guards took pictures, police moved traffic around the group, picketers carried fluorescent signs accusing Sky of being anti-union and pedestrians stopped to take flyers or sign a petition to boycott the bank, inside the branch business went on as usual.

"We don't have a say over normal ownership decisions like hiring," says Tim Dirrim, spokesman for Sky Bank parent corporation Sky Financial Group, in Bowling Green, Ohio. A Sky regional vice president has tried to moderate discussions between building ownership and the janitor's union, he says, adding that Sky is not anti-union, having used union labor to renovate its branch location in Centre City Tower.

The protest's other organizer, Alex Bradley, said the group plans to picket different Sky branches in future weeks. "To us, they're exactly as responsible as building management itself," for the janitors' dismissals, he said. "They're profiting off of it ..."

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