Janitors continue fight

BOSTON – Janitors in the Boston area entered their third week of striking the office building cleaning contractors with continued picket lines, marches, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience to call attention to their plight and some victories.

Declarations and actions supporting the janitors, members of Service Employees International Union Local 615/254, continue to grow as the union went out on strike after months of negotiations with the Maintenance Contractors of New England, an association of 30 cleaning companies.

The union says that janitors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are behind what their counterparts get in wages and benefits in other major cities throughout the country.

The union is using a comment reported in the Boston Herald by the negotiator for the Maintenance Contractors of New England, James Canavan, that the janitors “seem to cling to the idea they want to see more full-time jobs with more people having health insurance,” as a way to show the thinking of the cleaning companies. Canavan is a vice-president of Unicco Service Company, the largest cleaning company in the area.

Fourteen supporters of the janitors were arrested Oct. 10 in downtown Boston. Among those arrested were State Rep. Jarrett Barrios, who is running for the State Senate, and Gary Dotterman, candidate for the Boston City Council from the Allston-Brighton area. Dotterman echoed Barrios’ statement that public officials must support workers’ rights.

In a major symbolic victory, Acting Governor Jane Swift announced on Oct. 9 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would cancel its cleaning contract with Unicco because of its refusal to extend health benefits to more workers and failure to provide more opportunities to move into full-time positions. Swift said that the cleaning contract would be put out to bid and that preference would be given to companies that provide more health insurance and full-time work. Swift urged other building owners to take action, saying that those “who contract with the cleaning companies … be very clear about what our expectations are.”

The union janitors cancelled their plans to strike and picket the four state buildings cleaned by Unicco janitors. Many feared that state workers, who are represented by various unions, including SEIU, would refuse to cross the picket lines.

Previously, six cleaning companies broke ranks with the Maintenance Contractors of New England and agreed to lower the number of hours worked that would trigger health insurance coverage for their employees. These companies employ about one-fifth of the janitors represented by Local 615/254.

A number of building owners have publicly stated that they are willing to pay more for cleaning services so that the janitors would get their demands.

On Oct. 19, Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and SEIU are sponsoring a mass demonstration and march in support of the striking janitors, who are mostly women and immigrants. Other support demonstrations have taken place in a number of cities throughout the United States.

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com