Unblocking Arteries | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Unblocking Arteries

Justice Block Party hopes to show the road to a better Downtown ... which includes a healthy janitors' contract.



Billed as "a celebration of fair development for Downtown Pittsburgh," the Justice Block Party is set to occupy part of Smithfield Street for five hours on June 30. The event is designed to push for Downtown's future, but it's also fueled by a development in Pittsburgh's past: the 2003 layoff of nine Downtown janitors.



Several dozen progressive organizations plan to set up shop between 6th and 7th Avenues, offering food, live music, games for kids, and games decidedly not for kids. For instance, Save Our Transit, which plugs for permanent state funding for the Port Authority, will offer "Pin the Bus on Sam Smith," the state House's majority leader.


And the local Justice for Janitors campaign is holding what it calls its first annual golf outing: a three-hole miniature golf course set up on Smithfield in front of Centre City Tower. In 2003, Centre City management replaced its union janitorial service with a non-union company paying lower wages and no health benefits.


Explains Tom Hoffman, spokesman for the union representing the nine laid-off janitors and 90 percent of Downtown cleaning staff: "One of the holes, you putt into a model of the [Centre City Tower] building, and Bigfoot grabs your ball and throws it back at you."


Hoffman's union, Service Employees International Union Local 3, is using Bigfoot as a stand-in for Centre City Tower co-owner Ted Knetzger: Since 2004, the union has been trying, without success, to confront Knetzger about the janitors' layoffs.


"Ted's a big golfer," says Hoffman. "Our search for Ted has actually taken us to a number of golf outings."


He's not kidding. The Justice Block Party will include a continuous video showing ... projected on the side of the Tower itself ... of the janitors' search for Knetzger and partner Bill Rainer.

The film shows union members on the streets of Greenwich, CT, offering free Iron City beer to anyone with information on Knetzger's whereabouts. But it also depicts the more serious side of the issue. It quotes then-City Council President Gene Ricciardi worrying that Centre City Tower's actions will cause "a ripple effect" of other janitor firings Downtown. And it documents protests stemming from the layoffs, including a four-day hunger strike.


No other building has followed Centre City's lead so far: Downtown janitors are represented by the SEIU under a three-year contract which expires Oct. 31. The June 30 event is a kickoff to the union's contract-renewal campaign.


"Most of Downtown Pittsburgh has been very supportive of helping the janitors, which means helping all service workers Downtown. We wanted to celebrate that," Hoffman says. Centre City Tower, however, "is a symbol of injustice. The janitors there got left behind."


The progressive groups joining SEIU for the Justice Block Party, meanwhile, hope future Downtown development includes their constituents in the planning process ... and in the apartments.


"We thought it was a wonderful idea to bring together labor and our electoral organization," says Khari Mosley, head of the League of Young Voters, one of the Block Party's co-sponsors. "As Downtown becomes the next neighborhood in the city, there needs to be incentives put in place to promote mixed-income development."


The Garfield-based Thomas Merton Center, which supports many progressive causes, set up a Community Labor Solidarity Project last fall to organize community support for union projects. Ensuring workers Downtown and elsewhere earn a living wage is a peace and justice issue, "just like doing anti-war work," says Merton spokesperson Jeremy Schenk. The Block Party has attracted the support of groups ranging from mainstream environmentalists like the Sierra Club to the anti-war women of Code Pink.


Indeed, Time magazine recently cited Pittsburgh as "Exhibit A" in the success of the national Justice for Janitors movement, which began here in 1985. "SEIU's primary strategy," Time's June 18 issue reports, "is to show how higher wages and job benefits have improved not only the finances of workers ... but also the lives of their families and the economic and social welfare of the cities in which they live."


What does Centre City Tower make of the party coming to its doorstep? Linda Fryz, vice president of the building's management company, Independence Management, shrugs at the prospect of having a video mocking Knetzger played on the side of his own building.

"I don't find these actions any more or less disturbing than any of the other ones they've had," she says.

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