Since last December, when nine union janitors at Centre City Tower lost their jobs after building management dumped them for a nonunion, low-wage contracting company, the Service Employees International Union Local 3 fears other building owners could make the same move. So the union has tried all sorts of high-minded protests to get the so-called "Centre City Nine" back to work: labor solidarity through a picket line, delegations of clergy requesting meetings with management, speeches by local politicians, even a unanimous -- if nonbinding -- resolution of support from Pittsburgh City Council.
Nothing had any noticeable effect on building manager Linda Fryz or her boss, Ted Knetzger of Greenwich, Conn. And despite the union's agreement to end "improper picketing" against Centre City's Independence Management/Independence Enterprises, SEIU organizers say the show -- and the protests -- will go on.
On March 11, the union met Centre City's refusals to negotiate with ... refuse. At 8 a.m. -- two hours after hundreds of SEIU janitors Downtown finished their overnight shifts -- a crowd of over 300 gathered on Smithfield Street outside of Centre City Tower for the usual banner-waving, drum-beating and cheering ... while an unusually enormous pile of black-bagged "trash" (actually paper, not real garbage) loomed from a nearby flatbed. The slogan: "Don't treat us like the trash."
When SEIU's Gabe Morgan gave the signal, union members began to pitch the bags off the truck, where they were tossed like deformed beach balls from one gleeful protester to another until they landed on the sidewalk in front of Centre City Tower, forming a barricade at least four feet high and four feet wide.
As she watched the bags fly toward her, former Centre City Tower cleaner of 25 years Anna Kinsey smiled at the spectacle. "Every time someone joins us you feel better," she says. "But [building ownership and management] just keep saying it's a business decision."
Meanwhile, inside the building Kinsey's no longer allowed to enter, manager Fryz had just circulated a memo to tenants (which include City Paper publisher Steel City Media) stating exactly that: "It is unfortunate that the decision to retain a new cleaning subcontractor result[ed] in the loss of 9 jobs for SEIU members." Fryz, vice president of Independence Enterprises (which, with subsidiary Independence Management, is the management affiliate of owners Centre City Partners), has maintained that the union contractor, St. Moritz Building Services, lost the contract to a nonunion company in a competitive bid process. St. Moritz counters that it didn't participate in a "bid process," but was simply dropped after informing management that it expected services to cost more after SEIU won family health-care benefits in last fall's contract negotiations (at which Fryz was present).
In its memo, building management also asserted that "the [federal National Labor Relations Board] ruled in our favor" on a charge of improper picketing because Independence was not the cleaners' official employer.
"There was no ruling," contends SEIU lawyer Mike Healey. Healey says the union agreed in negotiations with the NLRB specifically not to "picket" Centre City -- but says that will have no effect on future demonstrations, except that Independence Management may not be mentioned by name on protesters' signs or literature.