Thousands of ‘Essential’ Workers Rally in Philadelphia for Better Pay

Thousands of SEIU 32 BJ members rally for a fair contract in Philadelphia on August 29, 2023. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

August 29, 2023

Thousands of janitors and office building workers from across the East Coast rallied in Philadelphia on Tuesday as their contracts are set to expire starting in October. Over 70,000 workers from Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C. and other cities are facing cuts in hours and wages.

Workers who were once considered essential or heroes throughout the pandemic are now facing the post-pandemic reality that they weren’t as important as they were told.

Thousands of commercial janitors and building workers from Service Employees International Union 32 BJ rallied in Philadelphia on Tuesday as the union’s contracts representing 70,000 workers on the East Coast are set to expire over the next few months.

In Philadelphia, a contract for 3,000 janitors and building workers workers is set to expire on October 15.

The rallying workers were joined by Cherelle Parker, the city’s Democratic Mayoral nominee, and other state and local elected officials as they demanded wage increases that keep up with inflation and to protect their life-saving healthcare benefits.

While speaking to the crowd, Parker mentioned that 200 janitors and other support staff members working in city buildings died during the pandemic.

“You saw those statements on websites? Did you see them? Essential workers matter. They may have even given you a tee shirt, and took your picture and put your picture on the website to tell you that you matter. That’s cute, but it means absolutely nothing if the wages and healthcare and retirement security that I earned doesn’t put me and my family on a path to self sufficiency,” Parker said.

Negotiations between SEIU 32 BJ and the Building Owners Labor Relations, an organization that represents the major commercial building owners, managers, and cleaning companies in Philadelphia began on August 22. According to the union, building owners proposed dramatic cuts in hours that would result in pay cuts and less job security for 2,000 commercial property service workers.

“How do we expect to attract and retain tenants with dirty lobbies and buildings?” said Audra Traynham, 32BJ SEIU cleaner and Philadelphia Bargaining Committee Member.

“We can’t revive Downtown if working people can’t afford to buy food, much less support local businesses. My coworkers and I get lunch at the local restaurants. I buy groceries at the corner store on my way home from work. We’re not asking for much, just what’s fair so our families and communities can thrive,” she added.

The Philadelphia contract represents close to 93% of the city’s commercial office space and is one of the first contracts set to expire.

Union members from Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and other cities also attended Tuesday’s rally. Their contracts are set to expire between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31.

“A lot of people suffered during the pandemic. A third of our members got laid off during the pandemic, but those that had their jobs stayed in the jobs where they’re cleaning the buildings, learning whatever they need to do to make sure those buildings are clean, sanitized and safe and ready for everyone to come back,” explained Manny Pastreich, President of SEIU 32 BJ.

Vernon Weatherbe Jr., a cleaner and elevator operator in Center City Philadelphia, explained the significance of Tuesday’s rally.

“The significance of today and why we’re out here is to rally against this proposal and upcoming contract that’s coming up. We’re out here fighting for what we’ve maintained and what we’ve had to this point and going into this future that seems to be uncertain,” Weatherbe Jr. said in an interview following the event.

Weatherbe Jr. has been a union member for as long as he’s been working in Philadelphia and explained why it’s important to be a union member.

“For me it’s a very prestigious honor because I have friends who aren’t union and they experience work-related issues. But when I have a union, it really informs me that I have the backing as well as the help for not only at work situations but in everyday life,” he said.

“When we come together in the sea of purple you see all around us, we’re coming together. It’s not only just in unity but a union reminds you that there are people who are just like you and members who are just like you fighting for liveable wages, that are fighting for better things – improvement of quality of life.”


  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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