WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – On Wednesday afternoon, about 20 janitors and union officers sat down to face a similar number of lawyers and company executives at long tables in a large hotel meeting room. The two sides — one dressed in uniform dark business suits; the other, in an array of business-casual attire and union gear — starkly represented the yawning economic divide that defines life in the diverse and crowded towns across the Hudson Valley and Fairfield County, Connecticut.
With this meeting, bargaining opened for a new contract between the cleaners’ union, 32BJ SEIU, and a cleaning contractors’ consortium, representing over 35 employers in the region. Bargaining sessions will continue, alternating between White Plains and Stamford, Connecticut, in a schedule that stretches until the end of the year. The issues on the table for some 3,000 commercial building cleaners in the Hudson Valley and Fairfield County include wage increases, the protection of employer-provided benefits, and the establishment of rules that will create a more respectful and professional workplace. But behind these issues lay the question of whether workers struggling harder and harder at one end of the economic divide can partake of the prosperity that continues to grow on the other side.
“Big corporations and the wealthy in our society have reaped incredible profits and extra money as a result of the recent tax breaks and reduction in the corporate tax rate,” said Lenore Friedlaender, Assistant to the President of 32BJ SEIU at a press conference before the opening of bargaining. “So there is no reason that the hardworking, taxpaying cleaners in Westchester, the rest of the Hudson Valley, and Fairfield County should not enjoy a fair share of that wealth, helping their families and communities to thrive. If we are not able to reach a fair agreement by December 31, when the current contract expires, then these 3,000 workers are willing to take whatever action necessary, be it a rally, a protest, or a strike.”
Union members and officials were joined at the opening of bargaining by elected officials from both the Hudson Valley and Fairfield County, Connecticut, who brought home the importance of supporting union cleaners — over 200 of whom showed up to observe this first day of bargaining.
“The people in this room provide a basic service that allows other workers to remain gainfully employed,” New York State Assemblyman David Buchwald said. “Let’s continue to have good paying jobs that provide not only for your families but provide also for your neighboring economies.”
As several speakers mentioned, 32BJ members clean almost 90 percent of the large office buildings in the region, from IBM and Pepsi-Cola headquarters, to the offices of the world’s most prosperous hedge funds in Greenwich and Stamford, Connecticut.
“These corporations should be able to provide a living wage and good benefits,” Danbury State Senator Julie Kushner said at the press conference, held in the lobby of the Crowne-Plaza Hotel. “Workers have had so many great victories this year, from Stop and Shop to General Motors, proving that we can win when we stand together…Thank you for the work you do, and if necessary, we will be with you on December 31.”
“The people who clean office buildings are the ones who make it a safe place to work,” White Plains Mayor Tom Roach said. “You need people who know what they’re doing, and that’s what we have – and you deserve to be fairly compensated for the work you do.”
“Fighting for workers and for labor unions is part of fighting for the future of this country,” Stamford State Representative David Michel said. “So I just want to say, ‘si, se puede!’”
“We offer our full support to local 32BJ,” Teamsters Local 456 Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Sansone said. “I’m confident you’re going to get a good contract, but if not, we’re here for you. Local 456 is strong; 32BJ is strong!”
“I came to this country ten years ago from the Dominican Republic, and my dream was to become a hairdresser,” New York Medical College cleaner and bargaining committee member Claudia Rodriguez said. “I love that job, but I realized more of my dreams as a union cleaner – better pay, more benefits, more security. Now I am fighting for a brighter future for all our union members, and for our communities, with a good new contract by the end of the year. I know that, together, we can make it happen.”
With 175,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 4,500 in Hudson Valley and 5,000 in Connecticut, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.