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MONTGOMERY COUNTY- On the eve of their contract deadline, suburban Philadelphia janitors—members of 32BJ SEIU—are calling their employers’ proposals offering only a dime a year in raises “upsetting” and have vowed to do whatever it takes to win a living wage.
“We’re struggling already. How are we supposed to feed our families on ten cents?” said Viridiona Hernandez, a cleaner for Allan Industries for the past year. “I’ve got two children to take care of. The cost of everything goes up: groceries, taxes, electric. But what my employer wants to give me won’t even buy me a stick of gum.”
“I enjoy my job, but we barely make enough to sustain our household expenses and buy food. We have families to support. All we want is a family-sustaining wage. Is that so much to ask?” said Elva Ramos, a suburban commercial cleaner.
Negotiations for a new contract covering more than 1,400 commercial office cleaners in suburban Philadelphia began on Nov. 5 between 32BJ SEIU and representatives of the Building Operators Labor Relations (BOLR) Suburban Division. The mostly-immigrant janitors make $12.35 an hour and have joined the ranks of fast food, airport and homecare workers who are demanding $15 an hour.
The janitors clean 170 office buildings, including those of prominent multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms and financial services firms throughout Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware counties like Johnson & Johnson, Merck U.S. Commercial Headquarters, GlaxoSmithKline, Brandywine Realty Trust, and Vanguard. Despite strong corporate profits, the cleaners’ wages have not kept up with the rising cost of living.
A living wage for one adult supporting one child in Philadelphia’s collar counties is $23.39 an hour, according to MIT.
“It is shameful that these wealthy companies would try to take from workers who are already teetering on the poverty line. With the cost of living rising every year, a ten cent raise is actually a pay cut,” said Daisy Cruz, Mid-Atlantic District Director of 32BJ SEIU. “There is something wrong when pharmaceutical companies will spend millions on TV commercials every month while cleaners in their buildings struggle to get by.”
The contract is set to expire at 11:59 PM on December 15.
Hundreds of cleaners in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties have taken action in recent months through worksite protests, rallies, marches and forums. The suburban janitors have also received the support of Center City cleaners, clergy members and numerous elected officials.
“Recently, I joined with a group of faith leaders who believe that those who scrub floors, clean bathrooms and do the other jobs that most people don’t want to do deserve a decent and reasonable level of pay,” said PA Senator Andy Dinniman. “The fact is it is very difficult to live in Chester County on even $15 an hour, which is what they are calling for.”
“These suburban Philadelphia commercial office cleaners work long hours doing back-breaking work, yet they earn so little they struggle to make ends meet. They are asking for a modest raise that will benefit our entire community. They deserve our support,” said PA Senator Daylin Leach.
“I support the suburban Philadelphia janitors in their fight for a living wage/higher minimum wage. These men and women perform some the hardest jobs and they should not have to struggle to support their families,” said Governor Tom Wolf.
With 145,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 22,000 in Pennsylvania, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.