WITH THE expiration of their contract looming, thousands of janitors will gather in Center City today to take a strike-authorization vote, union officials said last night.

The 32BJ Service Employees International Union has been in negotiations with Building Owners Labor Relations Inc. - which represents Center City building owners - since Sept. 3, a protracted debate over pensions and health-care payments, according to Daisy Cruz, SEIU's Mid-Atlantic director.

Nearly 10,000 of the union's members affected by the current contract will vote on whether to authorize a strike at 2:30 p.m. in the courtyard next to Temple University's Center City campus, across from City Hall.

"These men and women are from Philly: They live in the city and keep their communities and local business alive," Cruz said. "We want to make sure they can continue to do that."

Little progress was made during negotiations yesterday, according to Cruz, who said more meetings are scheduled through Thursday, when the current contract expires.

Officials from the building-owners' group could not be reached last night for comment.

"This is really about making sure these jobs continue to be good jobs so workers can continue to take care of their families," Cruz said.

A major sticking point has been pensions: The building owners want to freeze SEIU members' pensions and eliminate the pension program for incoming employees, Cruz said.

They also want union members to start paying for their own health care, which they don't do under the current contract. The average union member earns about $16 an hour, according to Cruz.

"Our members are barely making above the poverty level," Cruz said. "They simply cannot afford to fund their own health care."

SEIU has drawn support from city leaders at its recent rallies: An event Sept. 30 drew the support of Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney, as well as several members of City Council, including Council President Darrell Clarke.

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