New England janitors on strike

BOSTON – Hundreds of janitors and their supporters paraded through the streets of this city, Sept. 30, clad in purple t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Stand up for the American Dream” after leaving their picket lines on the first day of their strike.

The janitors, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615/254, struck 30 buildings, half of them in downtown Boston, and will add buildings to the strike day by day. The buildings struck on the first day use over 1,000 of the 11,000 janitors affiliated with the local.

Janitors from another 10 buildings went on strike on Tuesday, after two hours of fruitless negotiations. Rocío Sáenz, Deputy Trustee of the local, said, “They are not hearing the workers. They are not hearing the clergy. They are not hearing the community.”

The janitors went on strike after months of negotiations with the Maintenance Contractors of New England, an association of janitorial companies. Talks stalled over the question of health insurance and more full-time positions. About three-quarters of the janitors only work on a part-time basis, have no health insurance and earn under $40 dollars a day.

The strike became an Unfair Labor Practice strike after employees from Unicco Service Company, the largest cleaning company in the area, were fired for wearing stickers with the slogan “Respect – Dignity – Strike.”

Francisco López, the shop steward at one of the struck buildings told the World, “We are in this campaign for dignity and respect. It seems that we are the modern day slaves.” He noted that many families have to make decisions on whether to pay for “food, medicine or the rent.”

López said that Latin Americans come to the United States in search of a better life, but when they get here they find that “The exploiters are waiting for us.”

Saying “We are working for social justice,” López said that their struggle is not only for janitors, but for all low-wage workers.

Many employees leaving the building where López works expressed their support for the strikers. That building houses a number of state offices.

One young woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she didn’t realize that life in the U.S. would be so hard when she arrived three years ago. “I didn’t think we could do anything about it,” she said referring to her pay and lack of benefits. She ended saying, “I didn’t know there were so many of us. I think we are going to win.”

Besides receiving solidarity from other labor unions, the janitors have received wide ranging support from other sectors. It includes elected officials, clergy, student and even some building owners have said that the janitors need better wages and benefits.

In an editorial on Sept. 28, The Boston Globe stated, “Union demands for health coverage for part-time workers, higher wages and more opportunities for full-time work are hardly excessive.”

At a rally of over 600 janitors and supporters held in Old West Church and sponsored by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), State Rep. Jarrett Barrios told the World that he and other political leaders were there because “We have to fight for the rights of the workers.”

The Rev. David Carl Olsen, president of the GBIO, told the World that the 95 congregations and community groups affiliated with the GBIO believes that “Every family in Boston deserves good jos with quality health care.”

Bobby Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, told the janitors, who are overwhelmingly Latinos, “This a new labor movement and you are in the vanguard. You are the new heroes of this community.” The previous administration of the local had negotiated weak labor agreements for the janitors working throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Speaking to the workers, Barrios said, “You have been negotiating in good faith for months and what have you gotten?” The strikers responded in unison, “Nada” (nothing). Barrios, who is running for the State Senate, reminded the cleaning workers that “you are not alone. There are many people walking together with you.”

Earlier in the day students and faculty from different colleges and universities in the area rallied at Northeastern University together with community activists and supporters to demand that the university issue a statement of support for the janitors. Northeastern University has about 200 janitors who are members of SEIU.

About 100 supporters of the janitors demonstrated in solidarity in Providence, R.I. Among the supporters were Myrth York and David Cicciline, Democratic candidates for governor and mayor of Providence, respectively. State Representative Paul Moura urged the demonstrators to be out on the streets every day until the strike is won. Rhode Island janitors are scheduled to go on strike later in the week.

The author can be reached at jacruz@attbi.com