BOSTON — At 2 PM yesterday, fifteen cleaning contractors in sports coats and business suits walked into a downtown Boston union hall where over 100 janitors were already seated in rows, almost all of them dressed in purple union t-shirts. For years, the sharp sartorial contrast has typified the opening session of union contract negotiations between the Maintenance Contractors of New England (MCNE) and Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (32BJ SEIU). The meeting Thursday, however, marked the opening of the first negotiations since the pandemic, which intensified the differences between the contractors and their unionized employees, just as it did between the rich and the rest globally, raising the stakes on these negotiations for an agreement that covers 12,000 building cleaners across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and parts of southern New Hampshire.
The contract negotiations in Boston opened two months and a day before the current janitorial contract in New England expires on November 15. It is just one in a series of contract talks taking place across the country this year for contracts covering more than 134,000 cleaners with different SEIU locals, including 70,000 members of 32BJ SEIU in states across the East Coast. The outcomes of these janitorial contract talks will mark another important moment in a year of labor activism that includes a strike by screenwriters and actors, a hard-fought contract for UPS workers, and a strike by autoworkers in the Midwest that began on Thursday evening, just hours after 32BJ began negotiating the contract for New England janitors.
In his brief opening remarks at those talks yesterday, an MCNE spokesperson stressed that office occupancy rates have not fully recovered since the pandemic. Union members and staff countered with a bigger picture. A slide presentation showed that the region’s commercial real estate market has become one of the most expensive in the nation, in part due to economic pillars like higher education, which has rebounded from the closures of the pandemic, and biotech, where labs never stopped needing constant cleaning and disinfection. The economic data underscored a point made earlier in the day by Back Bay office cleaner Ana Gonzalez, who served as MC at a morning press conference with over half a dozen local labor leaders and public officials.
“In the pandemic, they called us ‘essential workers,’” Gonzalez said. “But we always knew that our work was essential. We keep buildings operating. It doesn’t matter if some people are working from home or they are all in the office — we still need to do our jobs. In the pandemic, when almost every officer worker stayed home, we did our jobs, too. We cleaned, disinfected, and kept the public safe. Many of us became sick with COVID, and many of us died.”
“I’ve been working [at Northeastern] since the day I arrived from the Dominican Republic many years ago,” said university janitor Juan Santana in a statement shared in the afternoon slide presentation. “It’s a good job but a difficult one –especially during the pandemic. As cleaners, we took huge risks…we were asked to clean the areas where students with the COVID virus were isolated. Because of incidents like that, many of my [part-time] coworkers became painfully aware of the reality of not having health insurance, as some contracted the COVID virus and ended up hospitalized for months.”
The morning press conference and afternoon slide presentation showed that 32BJ members, the majority of whom are immigrants and people-of-color, continue to suffer disproportionally from COVID and its aftermath. Without the support of a strong new contract, those stresses could eventually affect the industry and its fundamental service to the public.
“We are asking our employers to honor our sacrifice, to recognize our importance, and to realize the difficulties we face with inflation and lack of full-time work,” Gonzalez said at the morning press conference. “I have worked as a janitor for 23 years and never had a full-time position. I have to take health insurance from the state. Still, I come to work every day and I work hard, and I am only asking for the chance to say – one job is enough!”
“For eight years, I have worked as a part-time janitor at Novartis in Cambridge,” said another 32BJ member, Maria Rodriguez, at the press conference. “I live in Ayer and travel to Cambridge every day by train, which takes me an hour and a half each way, for a shift of only four hours. The travel costs me almost $400 a month.”
Despite these challenges, the cleaners’ comments at the press conference also resounded with their determination to win a strong new contract, sentiments that the leaders of labor unions representing building tradespeople, teachers, machinists, and others also supported.
“We are here today to send a message to those bosses, and also those building owners, that there is power in a union,” said Darlene Lombos, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, which represents unions with over 100,000 members in the region. “The Labor Council and all the unions here today honor the courageous workers at 32BJ, and we stand with you for choosing a side, for choosing human dignity over corporate greed.”
“32BJ showed extraordinary solidarity by giving us the whole floor of this building during all 46 days of that strike [at Marriott],” said Carlos Aramayo, President of Unite Here Local 26. “I’m here today as the leader of the 12,000 hospitality workers in the Greater Boston area to pledge unconditional support to the members of 32BJ in this fight…Fifteen hundred Marriott workers went on strike for a very simple demand, and I think it’s the same demand that you have when you begin your bargaining – that one job should be enough, not just to get by, but for you and your families to prosper.”
Representing 35,000 construction workers and their families, General Agent and Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions Brian Doherty also pledged his union’s support “every step of the way,” noting, “The reason [some of] the biggest companies in America come to Boston is to make money, and they forget that they’re supposed to share their prosperity with every single member of our community. That’s the deal when you come to Boston.”
“I am so proud to be here on behalf our 10,000 members of the Boston Teacher’s Union to support this fight to secure what should be a given in the first place – fair living wages, healthcare, and stable employment,” said Boston Teacher’s Union president Jessica Tang, a sentiment echoed by the press conference’s other speakers, Boston City Councilor At-Large Routhzee Louijeune and International Association of Machinists District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian.
As Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a video shown at both the press conference and the opening of bargaining, “These are basic securities that all workers deserve, especially those who keep us safe and healthy.”
“We are determined to win a contract that recognizes the sacrifices that janitors have made over these past four years, and that honors their continued importance to our economy and communities,” said Roxana Rivera, Assistant to the President of 32BJ and the head of the union in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “Our members clean and sanitize upwards of 90 percent of the square footage maintained by commercial janitors in the region. Across the East Coast, thousands of 32BJ members fell ill during the pandemic and over 200 died from COVID-19. Now, in the post-pandemic economy, cleaners need an increase in pay that can keep ahead of inflation, a continuation of their benefits package, and, for those workers struggling with two or three jobs, the chance finally to have full-time work and the security that comes with it. Our hard-working members deserve no less. We invite everyone to join us in supporting them and all essential workers who keep our state moving forward.”
With more than 175,000 members in 11 states and Washington DC, including nearly 20,000 members in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, 32BJ is the largest building service workers union in the country