When the Pirates open at home Friday, these PNC Park cleaners will demand $15 an hour

The unionized cleaners are starting off the season without a contract.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates
Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports
Sarah Anne Hughes

Clarence Thompkins was working at PNC Park a few seasons ago when he saw an older man sitting on the ground.

Thompkins, whose job is to keep the bathrooms clean and stocked during Pirates’ games, went over the man and asked if he needed help. Just ice, the man told him. Thompkins got a bag of ice for the man, who said his medication plus the sun had made him ill.

Now for the past two years, “he comes to me every game to shake my hand and to say hello,” Thompkins said of the man. “He told me I was a lifesaver.”

Thompkins, 63, tells this story to illustrate that there are good days and bad days — and good fans and bad fans — at his job. This is his fifth season working for the Pirates as a porter.

“You’re trying to keep the fans satisfied,” Thompkins said. “You’re more than a cleaner. You’re a social worker, too.”

He began as a non-unionized worker at PNC Park, and now he’s one of around 15 unionized cleaners who work at the stadium during the Pirates’ season. But when the first pitch is thrown out at the North Shore ballpark Friday, they’ll be without a contract.

Thompkins said during meetings with Service Employees International Union local 32BJ, the Pirates offered a $0.15 raise over five years — “totally ludicrous,” he said — before eventually offering a bump of $0.40 over that same time period. (A representative for the team didn’t return a request for comment.)

“That’s unacceptable,” Thompkins said.

With the backing of SEIU, Thompkins and the other workers are asking for their wages to be raised from $12.37 an hour to at least $15.

“It’s kind of hard. It’s hard,” he said of living on his current wages. “If they could up it to the living wage amount, it would be great for all of the employees.”

SEIU and the workers will demonstrate Friday at PNC Park to make this demand. Sam Williamson, Western Pennsylvania district leader for 32BJ SEIU, said the union started meeting with the team in January, and the workers’ contract expired in February. It’s not clear when SEIU will meet again with the Pirates.

Williamson said they’ve made their wage-increase case to the Pirates by pointing out that Downtown office cleaners who are members of SEIU make nearly $17 to start. “We hope that the Pirates see the light and are willing to invest in folks who help to keep the stadium clean,” he said.

Pittsburgh metro area workers in the building and grounds cleaning and maintenance field made a mean hourly wage of $12.92 as of May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A quick search of job listings for cleaning positions in the region shows hourly wages can range from $9 to upwards of $13.

Even the wages of cleaners at PNC Park vary. Thompkins said when he was hired as a non-union worker he made around $9.25 an hour. His wages went up to about $11.50 when he joined the union. While Thompkins and the other unionized cleaners are now making more than $12 an hour, an ad posted by the Carol Harris Staffing agency for overnight cleaners at PNC Park states that the positions pay $9.50 an hour.

Williamson said SEIU isn’t clear on the specifics of why the Pirates have non-unionized and unionized cleaners at the ballpark. But either way, they want the $15 wage to extend to all workers.

“One of the things we’ve been demanding is a path for the non-union cleaners to join the union,” he said. “Fundamentally, we don’t believe there should be any minimum wage cleaners anywhere, but especially at a Major League Baseball stadium that was built by the public with public money.”