Pitt service workers rally for change

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Pitt service workers rally for change

By Dale Shoemaker / Assistant News Editor

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The microphone froze.

At 7 p.m. Thursday night, it was two degrees in Oakland, and, despite a wind chill advisory from Pittsburgh news station WTAE, roughly 100 Pitt service workers, students and council members gathered on the sidewalk in front of David Lawrence Hall to rally for fair wages and cheaper health care, according to a press release following the demonstration. While Sam Williamson, regional director for 32BJ, was speaking, the microphone cut out temporarily because of the cold.

The rally, organized by 32BJ, the local branch of the Service Employees International Union, comes amidst negotiations between service workers and Pitt. Among other duties, the service workers are responsible for cleaning University buildings and maintaining the campus grounds. Their current contract with Pitt expired in December, but the Union and Pitt agreed to extend it until the end of this month to allow time for negotiations. 

According to a press release that 32BJ sent out before the rally, service workers at Pitt, as a whole, make around $16 per hour. The Pitt News reported in December that Pitt provided several top administrators raises of 3.7 to 7 percent for 2015 while the union contract allows for an annual raise between 1.75 and 3 percent a year.  

Pitt spokesman John Fedele said before the rally the University did not intend to comment on it.

Earlier this month, the Pitt News also reported on the contract negotiations between 32BJ and the workers’ union. At that time, University spokeswoman Cara Masset stated the negotiations were private.

Traci Benjamin, spokeswoman for 32BJ, said in an email before the rally that the desired outcome of the demonstration was to “move the administration towards seeing things our way.”

“We have supporters who want a fair contract for our members,” she said. “We ultimately want to get a 3.7 percent raise increase out of this. We want the increase that was given to top tier administrators passed along to us.”

At the rally, protesters marched to drum beats in a tight circle on the sidewalk chanting, “What do we want? Contract! If we don’t get it, shut it down!” 

Students stood and shivered on the steps of David Lawrence Hall in solidarity. Some held signs that stated, “I stand with Pitt workers because … ” and finished with their personal reasons.

Kate Knox, a senior psychology major, held a sign that read, “I stand with Pitt workers because they stand with Pitt.”

Several supporters beat on drums while Williamson led chants. Organizers set up a generator and microphone to allow the speakers to be heard by the entire crowd. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak (D-4th) spoke first.

“We are here in solidarity,” she said. “In my six years as a city councilperson, I’ve had to stand in front of crowds like this far too often. Are we going to sit down?”

The crowd gathered called back, “No!” in response.

“We are not going to sit down,” she said. “I will stand with you and 32BJ and the students here until you win your fight.”

Pittsburgh police were present at the rally, but only asked that protesters move closer to David Lawrence Hall and off the sidewalk. An officer present declined to comment. 

Two service workers spoke of their personal struggles after Councilwoman Rudiak made her statement. 

Carla Love, a cleaner who works primarily in housing buildings, said she has worked at Pitt for 10 years. She said she pays too much for health insurance. According to the Pitt News report earlier this month, service workers can pay up to $335 a month for health insurance, depending on their plan. 

Masset previously told The Pitt News that the University was not “privy to the costs at other organizations,” and the cost of health insurance for the service workers depends on the level of coverage at each organization.

“We’re not feeling the love. We feel like we’ve been left out in the cold like we are tonight,” she told the crowd. 

Rich Johnston, a union representative for 32BJ, said he was encouraged by how many people came to the rally. 

“What does it mean? It makes me motivated to see people standing up,” he said.

The students present expressed passion for what they called the fight for service workers to receive higher wages and better health care.

Joshua Orange, a junior global and urban studies major, said he came to the rally because he felt it was his responsibility.

“I’m here for humanity,” Orange said. 

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