Janitors rally for jobs, better pay

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Members of 32BJ SEIU took to the streets for a rally that drew several Council members and mayoral hopeful Jim Kenney. (AARON WINDHORST/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

SEVERAL THOUSAND pumped-up unionized service employees from Massachusetts to Virginia joined with local members yesterday in Center City to rally for better pay for themselves and for other low-wage workers.

"We're not asking to get rich. We are fighting for good jobs that lift our communities," said Juanita Acree, a janitor at the Liberty Place skyscraper complex and member of 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents 2,800 Philadelphia janitors, porters and other service workers.

The gathering, which drew Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney and a handful of City Council members, started shortly before noon with a rally in front of a luxury apartment building at 21st and Chestnut streets where union members were recently laid off, proceeded in parade fashion down the middle of Market Street and ended with a final rally at LOVE Park.

At the 2116 Chestnut building, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilman Curtis Jones and Kenney lambasted building owner CBRE Global Investors, of Los Angeles, for laying off the 13 union employees after recently buying the property.

The politicians noted that construction of the building was aided by a state subsidy and the owner benefits from a 10-year tax abatement.

In September, 32BJ SEIU, which represents 145,000 employees in 11 states and Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against CBRE Global and its management company, Greystar Real Estate Partners, of Charleston, S.C.

Standing on a platform stage, Clarke told the boisterous crowd that the layoffs violated the Protection of Displaced Contract Workers ordinance, which became city law in 2000.

"The law says you can't just come in here and kick people out of a job when they're under contract. So, we're going to be with you," he said. "We're going to do what we got to do, we're going to support you because you've always been there for us."

Said Kenney: "When you can unilaterally throw somebody out of their job because you don't like their pay level, to me that's unconscionable. In this city we're going to do everything possible to keep that from happening. We're only talking about people making $12 to $15 an hour, anyway. I mean, how greedy can you be?"

Pam Barnett, spokeswoman for CBRE Global, told the Daily News: "The workers in question were not employed by the property. They are employed by a third-party property-service company. It is customary for property-service contracts to end when a multifamily property is sold."

She added that Greystar, "as an experienced full-service management company," has its own contractors to perform the duties of the former employees.

Hector Figueroa, national president of 32BJ SEIU, said 75,000 janitors and other union members on the East Coast are now in the early stages of bargaining for new contracts from building owners.

In Philadelphia, where the average union member earns between $14.94 and $17.54 an hour, the union is negotiating with Building Owners Labor Relations, which represents Center City building owners.

Figueroa said his members, who also include engineers, maintenance mechanics and elevator operators, were not just marching for themselves.

"We are saying, as we fight for our contract, we join the movement across the country to fight for the minimum wage of $15 an hour," he said, "because we recognize that we cannot move forward if the majority of the workers in this country have less and less."

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