Without new deal, 2,800 Philly janitors set to strike Friday

 Commercial office cleaners rally in the courtyard of 1515 Market St. before a strike authorization vote. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Commercial office cleaners rally in the courtyard of 1515 Market St. before a strike authorization vote. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Janitors and other custodial workers in many of Philadelphia’s major buildings have authorized a strike if negotiations between the building owners and the janitors union don’t lead to an agreement by midnight on Thursday.

The janitors have been asked to contribute more toward their health insurance costs, and the building owners want to freeze the workers pensions. In addition, owners are looking to scrap pension program altogether for newly hired janitors, according to Gabe Morgan, vice president of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ.

“We’re not bargaining with people who don’t have money. We’re not bargaining over money,” said Morgan at a Tuesday rally across the street from City Hall in front of hundreds of janitors wearing purple union shirts and holding “ready to strike” signs.

“These people have all of the money is Philadelphia. This is the richest 10 blocks in this city, and nobody knows that better than you, because you take care of it,” he said.

The 2,800 janitors clean offices in nearly 170 building throughout the city.

The bargaining janitors have voted to authorize a strike before in recent years but have resolved contract issues before they had to walk. 

But this labor showdown, according to the janitors, is proving particularly contentious. Morgan said negotiating sessions with the Building Owners Labor Relations Inc. are scheduled all week and will push well into the night Thursday until, and if, a deal is struck. A spokesman for the building owners was not immediately available for comment.

Audra Traynham, a janitor who works in the Science Center in University City, said she views the building owners’ offer as an attack on her wages and pension. 

“Those things also say whether me and my family are gonna stay afloat,” said Traynham, adding that her union job has helped her raise her four kids.

“I cannot afford health insurance, I can’t afford poverty wages,” she said. “I’m trying not to go back to poverty wages — that’s why we’re out here doing what we need to do.”

The average union cleaner makes about $16 an hour, yet the SEIU said that’s far below a living wage for one adult supporting one child, which it pegs at $23 an hour.

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