Center City janitors vote to authorize strike

Barry Williams, a member of 32BJ SEIU and a cleaner at 1735 Market St., said he enjoys his job. But he believes that reductions to pension and health benefits that he is facing could make continuing to work a lot harder.

“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” said Williams, 44, who holds the position of shop steward, before he and 800 other commercial cleaners voted unanimously to authorize a strike if they don’t reach an agreement by Oct. 15 at midnight, when their current contract expires.

These commercial cleaners work at 168 office buildings across Center City and are negotiating with Building Owners Labor Relations (BOLR), a company that represents contractors for maintenance and custodial services and building owners.

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“Everything goes up, milk, eggs, rent, — we have to keep pace with a decent wage,” said Williams, who is also a member of the 32BJ SEIU bargaining committee. “We just want to be recognized for the hard work we do for them.”

Medical benefits are especially important due to the work-related medical issues that cleaners face, he said.

“As we get older, bones start creaking. Some workers start to get arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome. … To take our pensions away, that would take away from the hard work we’ve been doing,” he said.

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Most cleaners earn $15 – $17 an hour, according to 32BJ SEIU.

“Despite strong profits for the commercial real estate industry, BOLR has called for unprecedented cuts to the cleaners’ health benefits and pensions, potentially decimating the benefits that make these jobs family-sustaining,” the union said in a statement.

Williams said cleaners want to continue working, even when it involves tasks like shoveling during last winter’s heavy snowfall.

“A true testament to our hard work is when the snow is gone, the tenants have a clear sidewalk, and they tell us ‘Thank you,'” he said.”We take pride in what we do. We’ve made careers out of it.”

BOLR could not be reached immediately for comment.