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Service workers rally, negotiations continue

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Service workers rally, negotiations continue

By Dale Shoemaker and Elizabeth Lepro / The Pitt News Staff

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A giant bag of money sat on the railing of the Cathedral of Learning, but it was just out of reach for Marylou Fennell.

Fennell, who works as a mover and receiver at Pitt, marched on Tuesday around the Cathedral of Learning with about 50 other service workers demanding a new union contract with higher wages and cheaper health care. 

Fennell is also a member of Pittsburgh’s local branch of the Service Employees International Union, 32BJ. Negotiations for a new contract between Pitt and 32BJ began in November, according to Negotiation Committee member and custodian Steven D. Latimore. Another negotiation meeting between Pitt and 32BJ is scheduled for Monday.

Though Fennell said she only pays about $150 per month for health care, she said she still struggles to make ends meet some months. 

“They don’t want to give,” she said. “I’ve got another wage earner in my house, but if  I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

The rally on Tuesday evening was not the first of its kind, but another in a series held by Pittsburgh’s branch of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, alongside negotiations between 32BJ and Pitt. Negotiations were scheduled to conclude at the end of February. After they could not reach an agreement, the two parties agreed to an extension. To date, the parties have not reseached an agreement, according to both Pitt and 32BJ.

To prevent the rally from entering the Cathedral, Pitt police locked all doors except those facing Fifth Avenue. A Pitt police officer on scene declined to comment on the rally.

The crowd gathered in front of the Cathedral, on the Bigelow Boulevard side, and marched around until they were at the rear of the building outside of Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s office window. They held signs that read, “Pitt can do better.”

“What do we want?” one member of the crowed called. “Contract!” the crowd responded. Then, together, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

Sam Williamson, director of Local 32BJ in Pittsburgh, leads the service workers’ negotiations with Pitt, and said the union had “made progress” in its negotiations with the University, but that 32BJ still needed to make more progress.

“[Pitt has] moved significantly,” Williamson said, “but they need to move more. We’ve made progress, but we need to make more.”

In a prepared statement, Pitt spokesman John Fedele said Pitt continues to make progress in its negotiations with the service workers union. 

“We are offering a fair raise that compares favorably to other educational institutions in the city, along with a generous benefits package that includes health care, retirement and free tuition,” Fedele said in an email on Tuesday.  

Latimore said he hopes that Pitt will concede to the union’s requests. 

“We’ll continue to have these rallies,” Latimore said. “Hopefully it won’t come to a strike.” 

After they marched, rally members stood in front of the Cathedral fountain holding white signs with red lettering that read, “Fair Wage Increase 3.7%” and “32BJ.”

Tuesday’s rally was meant to draw the attention of Pitt faculty and administration working inside the Cathedral, according to Williamson, the rally’s organizer.

“Make sure they can hear us up there in the Honors College,” Williamson said through a megaphone. 

In December, The Pitt News reported that Pitt gave several top administrators raises of 3.7 to 7 percent. Rally members have said this 3.7 percent increase recently afforded to Pitt Administration should have extended equally to all Pitt employees.

“We’re just trying to make a statement that we deserve equality,” James Lewis, a service worker in the Housing Department, said.  

Another service worker, Pam Johnston, told the crowd about employees she knew who couldn’t afford to put their children on the medical plan. 

“The fact that they think they can hand us pennies is ridiculous,” Johnston said. “We’re here fighting for working people everywhere.” 

Other service workers, from outside of Pitt, also came to the rally to support the workers. For example, Shanna Rich,  a member of the SEIU who works as a security guard in New York, came to Pennsylvania two weeks ago to support Local 32BJ and its efforts to raise minimum wage, as well as its other movements. At the rally, she led chants and beat on a large drum. 

She sees momentum in 32BJ’s movement, she said.

“I want to motivate the labor force,” she said. “What took us years, they’re doing in a few weeks. We’re gonna win.”

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Service workers rally, negotiations continue