Service workers demand higher wages at panel


They talked and, later, chanted, but they knew it wasn’t enough.

Roughly 200 service workers — including janitors, security guards, fast food workers, students, professors and community members — gathered in the O’Hara Student Center on Thursday at 5 p.m. to hear a panel of workers and experts discuss wage inequality in Pittsburgh, organizers said. The panel was organized by Pitt, the local 32BJ branch of the Service Employees International Union and a local branch of Fight for $15, a national organization.

Organizers hung banners around the second-floor ballroom calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, one of which read, “Strike! Better pay for a stronger Pittsburgh.”

University spokesman John Fedele said on Thursday afternoon that the University would not comment on the panel. 

Each member of the panel gave their personal perspectives on income inequality. The panel included Stephen Herzenberg, an economist with the Keystone Research Center, Bruce Kraus, Pittsburgh City Council president and representative for Pittsburgh’s third council district, several service workers from around the city and Joshua Orange, a junior at Pitt.

Sam Williamson, regional director for the local 32BJ  SEIU, which helps organize workers union in Pittsburgh, mediated the panel and began with a challenge for the audience.

“Is your future going to be determined by your skin or where you went to school … or your inherent worth as a human being?” he asked. 

Minimum wage and other underpaid workers, Williamson said, are fighting for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 per hour, for better working conditions and for the right to form a union without interference by employers.

“The only thing throughout American history that has raised wages is unions,” Williamson said.

One-third of Pittsburgh residents live in poverty, according to a 32BJ release after the panel. A recent study by the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board found that nearly half of the new jobs being created in Pittsburgh will pay less than $14 per hour, the release said. This data is also from “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities” published by the School of Social Work earlier this year.

Williamson said SEIU is currently helping to unionize security guards around the city. Because of the actions of 32BJ, he said, 400 security guards are currently unionized, and 400 more are expected to unionize by mid-March. There are about 1,000 security guards in total in Pittsburgh, he said.

The panel comes amid contract negotiations between service workers at Pitt and the University. Workers are calling for cheaper health care and a 3.7 percent annual raise. 

Before the panel spoke, Orange stood and began to rally the audience.

“I believe!” he called. “I believe that we will win!”

Then, Herzenberg, the first to speak, spoke about the history of wage inequality in America.

“There’s an answer to inequality,” he said, “It’s $15 an hour.”

He discussed the specific economics of income inequality and explained that when all workers are paid more, the economy as a whole is better off.

“Only you can save America from itself,” Herzenberg said.

Lena Germany, who works at a KFC in Wilkinsburg, told a personal story of how she lost custody of her young son. He was taken away from her, she said, because, a few years ago, the state of Pennsylvania deemed her financially unable to support him. She expressed her frustration with working for a low wage.

“I don’t make the paychecks — all I do is work for them. I don’t want to struggle anymore,” Germany said.

She and other fast food workers around Pittsburgh, she said, are planning a strike on April 15.

Aliyya Lee, a cleaner at Pitt and a member of 32BJ, was also on the panel and spoke about how working as part of a union has benefited her. She said she is raising two daughters, one of whom is a senior at Pitt Johnstown. 

“If I didn’t have this job,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been able to put her through school.”

While she was speaking, she started crying. An audience member called to her and said, “Keep that strength.”

Later, during his speech, Orange explained what a living wage means.

“It simply means that you can live with your wages. It means you don’t have to choose between [paying only] two-thirds of your utilities … or whether or not you’ll be able to feed your children,” he said.

After the panel, Williamson opened up the floor to the audience.

Later, a crowd member asked Kraus if City Council would support the right to unionize and support Fight for $15.

“You only have to ask,” Kraus replied. 

This sentiment was echoed by councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who was also in attendance. 

Rudiak, who is currently running for city controller, said she co-sponsored a bill that City Council passed in 2010 to help raise the wages of private sector service workers.

Because of legal hang-ups, though, she said, the law is being enforced, but on an unregulated basis. Because of this, she said, she and other City Council members, including Kraus, are dedicated to advocating for workers’ rights. 

“It’s really powerful when elected officials lend their voices,” she said. “We show up.”

Orange said students should care about income inequality because it directly affects their lives post-college.

“This is pertinent for us,” he said during his speech. “It’s hard enough for us to try to figure out how to pay off a loan with $7.25 an hour, so it must be impossible to try to figure out to how to get to a better social economic state if you can’t figure out how to pay for school in the first place.”

He called on students not to be apathetic and to take action. Taking action, he said, is important because it is the right thing to do.

“This is not our fight, but this is all of our war,” he said. “When I say this is important for students to do, I mean it’s quintessential for us as humans to do.”