Effective protests have catchy slogans.
Like “Get up. Get down. Pittsburgh is a union town,” which dozens of union members and supporters chanted while walking Downtown streets this week. People from the Communications Workers of America, chapters of the Service Employees International Union and local progressive activist groups like Pittsburgh United were out in Mellon Square to protest low wages and unfair treatment by management on Monday — Boss’s Day.
But it was harder to explain in one or two shouted sentences exactly why the group was protesting security services company Am-Gard inside a city-owned parking garage over something called the prevailing wage.
What is the prevailing wage?
Pittsburgh’s Service Workers Prevailing Wage Law went into effect in spring 2010 and applies to “any employer who employs building service and food service employees for all work performed pursuant to a City service contract” or to “any employer who employs building service, food service, hotel or grocery employees for all work performed on or related to projects that will receive a City subsidy.”
These employers are required to provide a wage “based on information obtained from studying local wage conditions and data,” according to the City Controller’s office, which oversees compliance with the law. The median wage and benefits an employer is required to pay depends on the type of occupation. Employers covered under the law are required, for example, to pay a custodian $22.95 an hour (a median wage of $16.77 plus $6.18 toward health insurance).
Pittsburgh-based Am-Gard has contracts with the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh to provide building security.
SEIU Local 32BJ, a service employees union with a Western Pa. chapter, has been trying to unionize Am-Gard employees in the city for the past several years. As Chris Young reported for Pittsburgh City Paper shortly after the effort began, Am-Gard fired two employees who posed for a photo on a pro-union flier in 2009. They were later reinstated.
Native Pittsburgher Darnell Fowler used to work for Am-Gard, he told the crowd assembled in Mellon Square on Monday. “I feel like I was unfairly treated, and if we had a union, maybe I’d still be there,” he said.
“They’re not worried if we can survive,” he said of Am-Gard.
Fowler said no current Am-Gard employees were at Monday’s protest because “they’re too afraid to speak against” the company.
The protesters who were there wound their way from Mellon Square to the PPA garage at Smithfield Street and Strawberry Way, where their chants — “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Am-Gard has got to go!” — echoed inside the cement structure.
As they departed, one of the leaders of the protest pointed up: There, hanging from the uppermost level of the parking garage, was a banner that read “Am-Gard: Respect the Law.”
A question of compliance
32BJ claims that Am-Gard is not complying with the prevailing wage law in regards to employees at both the PPA and the Housing Authority.
The Incline called Am-Gard on Tuesday and asked to be connected to someone who could handle a reporter’s question. The person who answered the phone said the company had no comment. An email was not returned.
In its request for proposals for security services, the Housing Authority states that respondents should pay the prevailing wage. This is the language the Housing Authority used this summer, in a request for proposals for security services at 17 of its sites:
Provided it does not conflict with Federal law, state law or HUD requirements, the HACP intends to mirror the intent of the City of Pittsburgh’s prevailing wage law herein and as such will expect respondents to offer wage rates at or above those that have been published by the controller of the City of Pittsburgh pursuant to that law.
Please refer to such rates prior to submitting your response. For additional guidance with regard to local law refer to the City of Pittsburgh’s Controller’s Office with regard to the City of Pittsburgh’s prevailing wage rate.
The contract is currently pending an award.
According to Sam Williamson, head of 32BJ’s Western Pa. district, Am-Gard is currently paying security employees who work at Housing Authority buildings the correct wage but is apparently not paying the benefit required by the prevailing wage law.
The City Controller’s office is investigating two complaints regarding the prevailing wage and the Housing Authority, but the office could not comment further.
Two Housing Authority board members did not respond to request for comment.
32BJ likewise alleges that Am-Gard is not paying employees who provide security at PPA buildings the proper wage.
Dave Onorato, executive director of the PPA, said the authority pays security guards $11.23 an hour and contributes up to $350 a month to an employee’s health insurance plan if the employee opts in.
The prevailing wage is currently $11.92 for these types of security guards, and 32BJ alleges that not all Am-Gard employees are getting healthcare coverage. Nikki Lu, political director of 32BJ, testified at a PPA board meeting in April that the authority is paying a healthcare subsidy for 11 Am-Gard workers, leaving 40 without coverage, according to meeting minutes.
More than 1,000 local security workers are members of 32BJ, and their contract states that an employer must pay the prevailing wage. Whether Am-Gard employees will ever get to be in that group remains to be seen.
“If you don’t know Am-Gard, I suggest that you look them up online,” Fowler said Monday. “To me, they don’t care about the workers.”