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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - With a 12:01 a.m. strike deadline Monday looming, 14,000 unionized janitors from SEIU Local 615 got assurances Wednesday from carpenters, building trades leaders, Verizon workers and the state AFL-CIO president: We’re with you.
"Nothing is going to intimidate workers or silence workers, because we are not alone, we're going to continue to fight," said Rocio Saenz, Local 615 president, at a multi-union rally at union headquarters in Boston.
If you work in a Boston or Cambridge or Providence or Manchester, N.H., office tower, most likely the people cleaning your building at night are Local 615 members. The union represents building janitors across eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and southern New Hampshire.
Besides the usual disagreements over pay and benefits, the union is also battling with the Maintenance Contractors of New England over its push to get more part-time workers converted to full-time workers with full benefits. While the union says it has 14,000 members covered by the negotiations, an MCNE fact sheet says there are a total of 12,734 covered, of whom 3,659 – a little more than a quarter – are full-timers.
Most work part time, like Sylvia Clark of Lowell, a Panamanian immigrant who’s been working as a janitor cleaning the Cross Point Towers for six years and currently makes $49.96 for each four-hour shift.
"We do the job, and we like what we do," said Clark, who’s serving on the contract negotiation committee. "But we would like to be treated like people, with respect and dignity. Nobody sees us, but they’re going to see us now."
While they typically are identified as working for and at a specific building, the janitors are overwhelmingly employed by subcontractors, who are hired by the building owners from whom big-name tenants lease space.
Matt Ellis, a spokesman for the Maintenance Contractors of New England, said, "The deal that the association has offered is right in line with what's been settled in other Service Employee Union markets like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington."
The MCNE says area janitors in Local 615 now average $15.95 an hour, and it's offering a $1.25 per hour increase over five years, or 7.8 percent over the contract term, plus a 5 percent increase each year in company contributions to health plans. Overall, MCNE says, it amounts to a 2.25 percent per year total pay and benefit raise, and contracts negotiated in other markets with SEIU affiliates recently have ranged from 0 to 3 percent.
MCNE says the SEIU has been pushing for $1-an-hour increases every year in a three-year contract, or a 6 percent increase that it says is "Out of line with virtually anything being negotiated in this continuing uncertain regional, world, and national economy."
At their event Wednesday, union leaders wouldn’t give any specifics of what they want on pay and benefits, but say with the economy steadying, janitors are long overdue for a raise that puts them on a path to a living wage they can support a family on.
"How do we create a job that will allow workers to support their families, to have their benefits that very much they need?" Saenz said, adding these are key questions.
"This is what the labor movement’s all about: Trying to raise living standards and achieve the American dream," said Richard Rogers, executive secretary of the 90,000-member Greater Boston Labor Council, an association of 154 union locals.
Ed Fitzpatrick, president of IBEW Local 2222, representing Verizon workers SEIU Local 615 backed during recent contract talks, said, "It’s about time people became outraged in this country."
MCNE said, and Saenz confirmed, that a key sticking point in contract talks is the union’s desire to have more work shifted to full-time workers with better benefits.
"Definitely, there is a lot of hours that could have been given to workers who want to see more hours and eventually to have one full-time job," Saenz said.
But Ellis said that means fewer part-time workers.
"In order to convert all of those [part-time] people to full time, there would have to be a layoff and that layoff could be in the thousands" he said, of people who now may work a three- or four-hour shift as a janitor as supplemental income. Ellis said Boston buildings are typically cleaned between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. or midnight and then closed down to save energy, which means part-time shifts make more sense than full-time overnight, and MCNE members’ employees often get to and from work on the MBTA – which is closed down by 1 a.m., which is another argument in favor of keeping much janitorial work in part-time shifts that are concluded before the T stops running.
The janitors' union's threat to strike does come with some precedent and some teeth. It was 10 years ago that members of Local 615 walked off the job for four weeks, something that proved incredibly disruptive to Greater Boston, although it didn't win them huge improvements in pay and benefits.
Local 615 members and their backers in other unions say they are prepared to go there again if they have to.
"Right now we are far, far, far apart," Clark said. "And we're willing to fight. We don't want to, but if we have to, we will do it. And we will win."
Ellis of the MCNE said the business group also wants to avoid a strike or any labor disruption, but added, "Contractors have an obligation to keep the office buildings clean, and so, if necessary, that would mean cleaning them with managers, supervisors, and replacement workers."
With videographer David Jacobs.