When Alycia Norrios of Northeast Philadelphia heard her employer might cut her health-care benefits and annual salary increase, she thought of her son pursuing a doctorate in psychology at Drexel University and was overcome by stress over how she would continue to help pay for his education.

On Thursday, Norrios was among more than 1,000 Philadelphia office cleaners who marched from 18th and Market Streets to Rittenhouse Square to rally for fair contract negotiations. The current agreement expires Oct. 15 for 3,000 office cleaners in the city. Talks kicked off last week.

Philadelphia employers have proposed significant cuts to cleaners’ health-care benefits and pensions at a time of economic growth and a booming real estate sector but also in the wake of recent closings of the PES refinery and Hahnemann University Hospital.

“Based on census data, we’ve seen an increase in the median income in the city,” Mayor Jim Kenney told the crowd in Rittenhouse Square. “But it’s not enough. We need to do more, and you’ll have us behind you.”

Labor Union 32BJ Service Employees International Union led the march along Market Street chanting, “When we fight, we win,” and, “We’re fired up, we won’t take it no more.”

Philadelphia 32BJ members are among the first workers in the nation impacted by expiring contracts. As a result, said Gabe Morgan, 32BJ vice president, decisions made at the bargaining table will affect negotiations made in New York, Washington, and other cities.

Bob Martin, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Philadelphia, said his organization has met with the union twice thus far and negotiations are in the early stages.

“We’ve responded to the union’s proposal and we’re awaiting their response to ours,” Martin said. “In the meantime, we’ve scheduled a meeting within the next week and we’re hopeful to reach an agreement.”

Protester Theresa Domingo, an office cleaner at Comcast and a 32-year member of the union, was concerned that medical bills may lead to additional financial insecurity.

“A lot of us are sick — without our benefits it’s only going to get worse,” said Domingo, who was planning to work her night shift after the rally.

More than 1,000 office cleaners, joined by Mayor Jim Kenney, marched to Rittenhouse Square to protest proposed cuts to salary and health care benefits. With their contract set to expire Oct. 15, negotiations are underway for more than 3,000 office cleaners in Philadelphia.
Stephanie Lai
More than 1,000 office cleaners, joined by Mayor Jim Kenney, marched to Rittenhouse Square to protest proposed cuts to salary and health care benefits. With their contract set to expire Oct. 15, negotiations are underway for more than 3,000 office cleaners in Philadelphia.

The Rev. Greg Holston, an executive director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, said more than 14% of the city is in deep poverty, which means those workers earn a little more than $5,500 annually.

“Recognize that 200,000 people, mostly black and brown people, in this city live in that type of poverty,” Holston said. “There’s something going on wrong in our country when people who work hard and play by the rules don’t have enough money to take care of their family.”

Morgan said the union is nowhere near accepting the contract because it includes no wage increases in the next four years and no health-care coverage, which workers currently have.

"We are here today in the wealthiest block of the city with one message: We built this city,” Morgan told the crowd in the square.

Police said no incidents were reported from the event.