Today I voted to strike with all of my heart. My co-workers and I clean and maintain every major commercial office building in Center City. We are negotiating for our union contract with the wealthiest building owners and operators in the city. We voted to strike, if necessary, today because in spite of Center City’s wealth, we are still being asked to sacrifice our health care, retirement and wages to give even more profits to an industry that is thriving.
For years, cleaners have been told that we need to wait to claim the wages and benefits that will help us join the middle class. Center City needs to get on its feet, taxes must go down, the recession must end—and many more excuses have been thrown our way by the city’s wealthiest industry.
When I held up my “yes to strike” card, I decided that today is the day that we hear no more excuses and finally join the middle class.
My union contract is about more than a piece of paper, it is my guarantee that I will live another day.
I am willing to go out on strike because one day 15 years ago, my life changed forever. I was walking my son to school and I had shortness of breath. I sat down on the church steps. I knew that my body was beginning to fail on me. By the grace of God, I made it to my best friend’s house where I collapsed on the floor.
I woke up three days later in the hospital. The doctors explained that they opened my chest and replaced my Mitral valve. They gave me a mechanical valve and the chance to live to see my son grow up.
After 15 months of recovery, I wanted to get back to work. I have never been someone who could just sit around. Just before my hospitalization, I had been laid off from a mattress and box spring factory where I had worked for nearly two decades before it moved overseas. I knew I needed to get a good union job with health care so I could afford my lifesaving heart medication and medical care. I found one in the commercial office cleaning industry.
For the last 16 years, I have cleaned Four Penn Center and I am proud of the work that I do. I know the tenants in my building like family. It is through this job that I am able to help support my own family, including my son, 9 stepchildren and 13 grandchildren.
I know that not everyone cares about union contracts, as they have become rarer and rarer over the last 40 years since I started working. However, our fight is about more than a union contract. It is about the kind of city we want Philadelphia to be. Do we want Center City to only benefit the rich, or do we want to see the wealth spread to the neighborhoods where my co-workers and I live?
I live in North Philly near Temple and my neighborhood is changing fast. Every day I get calls and mailers asking me to sell my house. Meanwhile I am just struggling to hold on. My taxes are going up, along with the cost of nearly everything. The only thing not going up are my wages—at least not enough. Without a good union contract that allows me to keep my health care, and my house, I could be out on the street—or much worse. If we do not negotiate our retirement, I may need to work until I am in my eighties, no matter how much it destroys my body.
I work hard and so do all of my co-workers. We make sure buildings are clean and running smoothly. We do not want to strike next Tuesday when our contract expires, but we are willing to do whatever is necessary to win a contract that allows us to take care of our health and our families. We appreciate the support of the thousands of professionals who occupy the buildings we clean and the thousands more working class Philadelphians who are struggling to get by—just like us.
Barbara Wright is a commercial office cleaner and a member of 32BJ SEIU, the union representing cleaners and other building service workers in Philadelphia.