Service Workers Fight for a Share of Philly's Revitalized Center City

Jake Blumgart

On a humid Wednesday afternoon, over 1,000 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ crammed into the confines of Center City Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street, between 22nd and 21st Street. The crowds were decked out in the usual purple and yellow garb, with enormous flags staking out delegations from New Jersey, Delaware, and farther-flung locations. Huge speakers blasted Billy Bragg, Jimmy Cliff, and a variety of other spirit-boosting music. The youth drumming brigade, Extreme Creation, dressed in black masks and purple SEIU shirts, kept the crowd entertained as some of the city’s most powerful politicians prepared to step up to the podium. 

The rally is meant to kick off 32BJ’s season of contract negotiations. The mega-local covers building service workers—janitors and security guards—in office buildings up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Boston. As part of a strategy under development since the turn of the 21st century, 32BJ’s contracts come to an end at roughly the same time, allowing them to exert maximum pressure on employer groups. In Philadelphia, the Center City contact ends on October 15, the suburban contract ends on December 31, and the contract-covering workers in neighboring Delaware ends on January 15.

“Already they [Center City employers] have made much tougher proposals than what they made before,” says Gabe Morgan state director of 32BJ for Pennsylvania and Delaware. “They’ve proposed huge cuts to pensions, which are already very modest, huge health-care co-pays. And that’s just the opening round. We expect the next proposals will only go down.”

(The Building Owners and Managers Association of Philadelphia did not respond to calls for comment by press time.)

The janitors in Center City have been unionized for decades and have wages to match, making between $15 to $17.50 plus pensions and health care without co-pays. (Security guards are under a different contract and are newer to the union, due in part to SEIU ‘s broader national strategy.) The 32BJ janitors in suburban Philadelphia have only been organized within the last 10 years. They make $12.35 an hour by contrast and some—according to a worker from Malvern interviewed at the rally—do not have retirement benefits. Their Delaware counterparts only make between $10 and $10.40. 32BJ hopes to maintain its standards in Center City—where they have 2,800 members—while advancing wages and other benefits in the other locales, where membership combined is 2,200.

“I look at it as we are the last blue collar workers making a decent wage,” says Beverley Sims Miller, who has worked as a janitor on one of the big office buildings on South Broad Street for 19 years. “I have health care and I want to make sure my grandkids and their kids have that too and good stable jobs. I’m out here to protect our wages. The jobs these days are paying $7.35 an hour. I couldn’t have bought a house with that. I couldn’t have helped my grandkids go to college with that.”

In Center City Philadelphia the great majority of 32BJ janitors are African American or Eastern European (predominantly Polish or Albanian). In the suburban and Delaware offices, the membership are often Hispanic and often immigrants. (Racial composition differs radically across the region, in Pittsburgh 40 percent of 32BJ janitors are native born whites, Morgan claims.)  The wage premium brought by union membership is particularly beneficial to people of color, with African-American women enjoying a union wage premium of 29 percent, and 44 percent for Hispanic men. A 2015 study from the Century Foundation found that union membership amounts to over half a million dollars in additional income for the average worker over the course of a lifetime. Union workers are also much more likely to receive paid leave, health care, and retirement benefits, all of which are increasingly difficult for lower-income workers to access.

32BJ’s building services jobs are arguably among the best working class positions in Center City Philadelphia, which has seen a resurgence of residents, retail, and restaurants in recent years. Of the jobs available downtown, roughly a third require a high school degree or less, but many are in leisure and hospitality, which Center City District reports have an annual average wage of $29,000. Office jobs have stagnated, by contrast, as the region’s job sprawl continues unabated. Over 43 percent of downtown’s share of finance, information, and real estate jobs have vanished since 1990, as suburban office parks have attracted more white-collar work.

In addition to being paid more than their suburban counterparts, or most other working class employees in Center City, 32BJ’s janitors also enjoy the benefit of being able to commute easily and cheaply to work. Center City is the hub of the region’s transportation network, and for those who live in the working class and low-income neighborhoods of Kensington, South, West, or North Philadelphia, these jobs are only a short, and cheap, transit ride away. The additional cost of a frequently used automobile does not necessarily need to be added to the household’s burden. Many of the city’s low-income workers, by contrast, must commute many long hours by public transit to the suburbs or try to afford cars: A 2013 report from Brookings found that 64 percent of the region’s jobs were located 10 to 35 miles away from urban centers.

The city’s political class seems to understand the importance of these jobs and, no doubt, the massive union’s political power. Before 32BJ began its rally, a roster of the city’s most notable politicians stepped up to the microphone, including City Council President Darrell Clark and the city council’s Democratic Majority Leader Curtis Jones. Democratic candidate for mayor Jim Kenney, the likely victor in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, also spoke.

“Everything I have become has to do with the labor movement and my parents having access to good jobs and good benefits,” Kenney told the cheering crowd. “Everything came as a result of the ability to bargain for our working conditions and for our wages. We are not going backwards now and we are not going backwards in Philadelphia, ever.”

The contract fight will most likely be bruising. Over the summer, 12 SEIU members were fired from their positions as janitors and security guards from a high-rise condominium complex (a former textile union property). The action was unrelated to the upcoming contract negotiations—new owners purchased the building—but it casts a pall over negotiations, which are already difficult because of the lower standards pervasive in the rest of the local labor market.

“As other American workers have gone backwards we have organized whole industries that have been low-wage workers,” says Morgan, 32BJ’s regional leader. “So we are always fighting uphill.”

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