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Fighting Clean

Union to file labor complaint over fired Downtown janitors

Think it doesn't matter who cleans up after Downtown office workers? The Service Employees International Union disagrees: They want to make a federal case of it.


On Jan. 14, at noon, the SEIU plans to announce its filing of a complaint with the federal National Labor Relations Board. They're objecting to the sudden dismissal of 10 janitors from the Centre City Tower office high-rise Downtown, where City Paper and Steel City Media are also housed. (See News Briefs, "Swept Away," Jan. 7.) The action follows a week of leafleting by the fired janitors and union reps, attempting to rally the building's tenants to their cause.


When the building's management company, Independence Management, unloaded St. Moritz Building Services Inc. at the end of 2003, they also told the Centre City sweepers to clean out their lockers. Though turnover in contractors is common, the cleaners typically keep their jobs in the building and the second cleaning company becomes their new official employer. (For instance: Anna Kinsey, a 25-year veteran in the building, says she's technically worked for at least four employers over the years.) This "successor" arrangement is spelled out in SEIU's contract with the Managers, Owners and Contractors Association (MOCA), which handles negotiations for several downtown buildings. The fact that Independence Management swept out the janitors suggests that they also want to toss the union, which had just won a new contract on Nov. 1.


Independence insists that they did not fire the janitors, since they do not work directly for Independence.


Under the new agreement, janitors working full time will make $9 to $12 per hour, plus benefits, at jobs that otherwise might be "35-hour part time" and pay poverty wages with no benefits. SEIU janitors have full health insurance; the new contract also reduced the price of heath insurance for their families from $470 to $200 per month.


The SEIU believes that Independence Management's actions are an illegal attempt to get out of this new contract. Even though Independence wasn't the cleaners' employer, they are members of MOCA and they did participate in the recent contract negotiations — which, ironically enough, took place at Centre City Tower itself, says SEIU spokesman Tom Hoffman. "They signed the contract," Hoffman says. "They're breaking a deal that they made."


What's at stake is all 800 or so union cleaning jobs Downtown. If Centre City can dump its cleaners so easily, there may be little besides public pressure and union activism to stop other Downtown buildings from following suit.


The union will ask the feds to issue an injunction, which would essentially demand that Independence hire the janitors back. Hoffman says they're also investigating other legal remedies: Concludes Hoffman: "This isn't the end, this is only the beginning." 

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