After all the speeches and chants and drumming, the union janitors broke up their Downtown rally at Mellon Square Park shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday and streamed across the street to the Omni William Penn Hotel. They walked through the hotel’s ornate lobby, packed themselves into elevators and rode to the 17th floor. There, they entered the elegant Urban Room to await the start of negotiations.

The drummers, energized for the first day of bargaining for a new contract, brought with them the buckets they’d pounded at the rally. So, while waiting, they resumed a rhythmic beat. Standing in a hallway several feet away, Steven Kelley could hear — and feel — the thump-thump-thump behind the room’s closed doors.

Kelley, a janitor represented by Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, is a member of the union’s bargaining committee, and he had a lot on his mind. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from scanning his surroundings. Any dust on the furniture? Crumbs on the carpet?  

“Every time I go somewhere, I always look around to see how clean it is,” he said. It goes with the job of cleaning offices, something he’s done for 13 years.

Members of 32BJ cheer speaker and fellow union member Steven Kelley. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, Kelley notes, but on this morning, he and his 32BJ colleagues were determined to attach a more specific value to the work of keeping things clean. Their current contract, which covers 1,200 office cleaners who work in nearly every major building in Pittsburgh, expires Oct. 31. They say they want a new contract that honors the sacrifices they made while working during the pandemic — office cleaners were considered essential employees — and compensates them for a job that’s become more difficult.

“Where there was two of us, now there’s one, because one person has been laid off,” Kelley said. “So the work falls on one person.”

In addition, wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and janitors working Downtown face lingering safety concerns as the neighborhood continues to rebound from the pandemic.

There’s a lot at stake. The quality of life in Pittsburgh hinges on the “very tedious, very difficult” work the union janitors do every day, Kelley said.

“Who wants to come to work in a dirty building?” he said. “Who wants to come to a dirty city? That work falls on our shoulders. We want a contract that says, ‘Thank you. Thank you for the work that you do, thank you for the sacrifices that you made, thank you for working with us.’ That’s what we’re after. Anything short of that is not good enough. If we are essential, then you need to treat us that way.”

Below are highlights from the rally preceding the bargaining session.

Yvonne Brown pounds a bucket converted to a drum. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

I remember clearly when the pandemic began. I remember being at work, with my co-workers. We were all terrified. We were watching the news, we were watching the bodies pile up left and right. I remember one of my co-workers coming up to me and saying, “Steve why are we here? Why can’t we go home?” Brothers and sisters, at that moment, I did not have the answer. But today I‘ve got the answer. We didn’t go home because we are essential workers. What does essential mean? It means “You need us.” It means, “You need us like air.”

— Steven Kelley, office cleaner and 32BJ bargaining committee member

• • •

I had a gun pulled on my face as I was coming off my night shift. We are literally on the front lines, doing our part to keep the city clean. What do you think Downtown would look like if we refused to clean the trash, urine and other waste left behind by folks? We are the glue that held and will hold together the Central Business District.

— Julie Ashade, office cleaner and 32BJ bargaining committee member, in a statement released before the rally

• • •

Sam Williamson, district director for Service Workers International Union Local 32JB, addresses the safety issues faced by office cleaners. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

We know that right now the public health crisis facing the unhoused and those suffering from untreated mental health and addiction problems needs critical investment, so we can continue to keep Downtown a safe, clean and vibrant engine of our regional economy. You see the impact of this every day when you go to work. You see the impact every night when you come in to clean these buildings, and every morning when you’re waiting for the bus.

So we’re proud, when sitting down at the bargaining table, to partner with employers and  building owners and Downtown stakeholders to demand investments in our central business district, to maintain clean, safe and healthy streets, to invest in these buildings so we can reimagine some of their purposes, so we can imagine a future for Downtown Pittsburgh in which more people are living Downtown and where everyone who works Downtown can afford to live Downtown.

— Sam Williamson, district director, Service Employees International Union 32BJ

• • •

Sara Innamorato, Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive, shares a laugh with the crowd. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

You were essential workers, but your pay did not reflect that during the pandemic. You are the reason people were able to come back Downtown to work. We know your wages do not reflect your sacrifice, your wages and benefits did not keep up with the rising cost of living. I was just talking to one of your sisters about the fact that she can’t afford rent, and she has a union job. We have to do something about that. It’s not the executives that know each and every square foot of these buildings, it’s you. You are the ones that make Downtown run.

— Sara Innamorato, Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive

• • •

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee tells the workers they’re not alone in their fight for a fair contract. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Folks take for granted that we’re a union town. Folks don’t always know what goes behind making this town what it is. They don’t know what it takes to make our labor movement as strong as it is.

You have to know that you aren’t going into any union contract negotiations alone. You’re going to have your siblings who are now in elected office …. You’re going to have your union siblings, not just in the SEIU but across the region, because this is a union town. Make sure that you feel the love and support from everyone of your sisters and brothers in labor.

— U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale


Union janitors pound on buckets to energize the crowd. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

We built this city, we power it and we service it. We are the American labor movement and we’re not going anywhere.

— Darrin Kelly, president, Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council

• • •

Union members come together for support, and to show power, before their first bargaining session. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at