With D.C.’s Gentrification Debate Raging, 10,000 Immigrant Janitors Start Contract Talks in Push to Join the Middle Class

Julie Karant: 646-584-9001

With D.C.’s Gentrification Debate Raging, 10,000 Immigrant Janitors Start Contract Talks in Push to Join the Middle Class

MoCo and Arlington Workers seek full-time hours that lead to full-time pay and employer-paid health care

Washington, D.C. – 32BJ SEIU janitors, who maintain nearly all of the region’s commercial office buildings worth an estimated $13 billion, will begin negotiations todat for a new union contract that expires on October 15 with the Washington Service Contractors Association. Notably, hundreds of janitors in Loudoun County, VA will bargain their first-ever union contract with 32BJ SEIU. Nearly 134,000 commercial janitors nationwide are bargaining for their livelihoods as part of what will be the nation’s large private sector contract bargaining of the year.

With presidential candidates focusing on how to rebuild the nation’s labor movement, local janitors are an example of how this labor resurgence can rebuild the middle class. As communities and lawmakers in a city with the nation’s strongest intensity of gentrification grapple with wealth inequality and affordability, over 10,000 janitors in the D.C. area are lifting the tide for all workers by raising job standards and through legislative campaigns. 32BJ janitors spearheaded the fight for D.C.’s $15 minimum wage, paid sick and family leave and sanctuary city status among other laws in Maryland and Virginia.

While this overwhelmingly immigrant workforce negotiates their job conditions, they also continue to unapologetically fight the constant threats and harassment from the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Thousands of 32BJ cleaners are among 40,000 in the D.C. area with Temporary Protective Status from El Salvador, with a work authorization that was set to expire this past Monday, September 9, 2019 until it was “auto-extended” by the courts. A September U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report ranks janitorial work as one of the nation’s top 10 occupations with most growth over the next decade.

Most janitors have no choice but to accept part-time hours, forcing them to take multiple part-time jobs and still often not getting employer-paid health care. As Montgomery County experiences a major building boom, 32BJ SEIU is currently pushing County Council legislation to increase janitors’ access to full-time hours, similar to legislation passed by the D.C. Council four years ago. Like four years ago, cleaners will be looking to expand full time jobs with benefits during this bargaining. 

“I need breast cancer screenings, I have been putting my faith in God to get health insurance,” said, Miriam Pineda, a commercial cleaner in Rockville, MD who’s a single mother and the sole provider caring for her grandchildren. Pineda, who doesn’t have health care is also worried because she suffers from diabetes and thyroid complications.

As janitors in Arlington also push to have greater access to full-time hours, the city celebrates its new ranking as the nation’s most competitive real estate markets, a result of Amazon’s move.

“The economic development around the commercial real estate boom means there is more than enough wealth to ensure these workers are provided their fair share of the profits they help create,” said 32BJ SEIU Vice President, Jaime Contreras. “This contract will prove whether the region’s prosperity will ever trickle down to move low-wage workers into the middle class.”

As D.C. now ranks as the seventh most expensive city among the nation’s top 75 cities, 32BJ janitors often must work more than one job to keep up with the rising cost of living. They currently earn wages ranging from $12.10 per hour for part-time janitors to $16.10 for full-time janitors. Among other benefits, all full-time workers have employer-paid medical care and both full and part-time workers have life insurance and dental benefits.

The 32BJ SEIU contract covers over 4,000 janitors in Washington, D.C., nearly 4,000 janitors in Northern Virginia, over 1,500 janitors in Montgomery County, over 600 Baltimore janitors.

In the 1980s, janitor wages stagnated and workers were losing their benefits. Janitors in D.C. paved the way for the nation’s ‘Justice for Janitors’ movement when they blocked the Roosevelt Bridge, demanding and winning living wages, employer-paid benefits and respect in the workplace. June 15 has been memorialized as “Justice for Janitors Day” after dozens of janitors were wounded and arrested by baton-wielding police officers during a peaceful rally to improve their jobs in Los Angeles.

As a student at D.C.’s Bell Multicultural High School and working part-time as a janitor, 32BJ SEIU VP Jaime Contreras was part of D.C.’s “Justice for Janitors” team that helped drive the largest low-wage janitors organizing effort in D.C. history. Contreras, now a naturalized citizen and U.S. veteran, came to the U.S. undocumented from El Salvador at the age 13 to avoid imminent death during a bloody civil war.

With more than 173,000 members in 11 states, including 20,000 in the D.C. Metropolitan Area and Baltimore, MD, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country. 32BJ SEIU members hail from 64 different countries and speak 28 different languages.


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With over 175,000 members in 11 states, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property services union in the country.

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