Partial Victory for Boston Janitors

by Joe Auciello


Better pay. Health insurance. Respect. Nearly 2,000 janitors in Boston, represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), organized, marched, and won a nearly four-week-long strike against the largest cleaning service companies in the region. The five-year contract offered by the employers association, Maintenance Contractors of New England, extends benefits that have never been granted here before to part-time workers.

Although only about 2,000 went on strike, there are 10,700 janitors in SEIU Local 254, predominantly Latino immigrants. Approximately 8,000 of these workers hold only part-time jobs (less than 29 hours per week), sometimes stitching together two or three part-time jobs to earn a living. These workers, about three-fourths of the union, had no health care benefits, no sick days, and a salary of only $9.95 an hour in one of the most expensive cities in the USA.

Health care has been a central issue in the strike. As the SEIU pointed out, “Without health insurance, the cost of health care is prohibitively expensive. A visit to a doctor in the Boston area costs $79, two days’ pay for a janitor. A prescription for antibiotics alone costs an entire day’s wage.” Even full-time workers find it difficult or impossible to purchase health care coverage for family members.

A Boston Globe report (Oct. 17, 2002) highlighted the story of Manuel Perez, who has a full-time job but cannot afford the $20 weekly premium that would be charged for family coverage. As a result, “His wife, Michelle Perez, hasn’t seen a doctor or gynecologist in nearly two years…”

The newly won agreement will give fully funded health insurance to 1,000 part-time janitors who work in Boston’s largest downtown offices. Most janitors will receive a pay raise of $3 per hour, or $12.95 for most workers. Two paid sick days a year were also added to the accord.

SEIU leader Rocio Saenz said, “This is a tremendous victory. We have for the first time part-time janitors with health care, which means if janitors get sick, they can go to the doctor and they can pay for their medicine” (Boston Globe, Oct. 24, 2002). Although 1,000 part-timers won health care, it was not clear that their families would be covered.

The Globe quoted union member Mynea Cea, a 35-year-old Salvadoran and a part-time worker. She said the janitors won “dignity and respect… We’re very happy. We can return to our jobs with our heads held high.”

The Contract’s Limitations

Nonetheless, the union’s victory was partial and incomplete. The janitors will not all receive an equal share of the gains. Wage hikes will be greatest for workers in the Boston area, while workers in outlying cities and suburbs will earn about one-third less than their brothers and sisters in Boston. Wage raises are less than what the SEIU won for their members in Los Angeles two years ago.

Some gains will not be seen for years. Fully funded health care, for instance, will only become available in the third year of the contract. And, as we have said, about 8,000 part-time janitors still have no health benefits.

Several of the union’s demands were left on the bargaining table. The cleaning service companies will not be required to offer full-time jobs to any portion of their part-time workers. Nor will sympathy strikes be allowed in the contract. SEIU had wanted janitors in Boston to be able to support any similar strikes in other cities.

Still, despite its limitations, the janitors’ contract is a victory. The management association was forced to make concessions they had vowed not to make. The resulting contract also puts the union in a position to build on its gains in future negotiations. The director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Andrew Sum, correctly noted that “public recognition of the right and need to organize may well be the long-run, favorable payoff from the strike” (Boston Globe, Oct. 25, 2002).

Support in the Streets

While the negotiations took place in the Parkman House, the official city residence on Beacon Hill, the real power was shown in the streets. Without determined and sustained action by union workers and a broad range of supporters, especially Jobs with Justice members (see www.massjwj.net) and the Student Labor Action Project (see www.bostonslap.org), who rallied, marched, raised money, and maintained picket lines, the union leaders could never have wielded what leverage they did have. The agreement was reached just before a massive support rally, with buses coming into Boston from all over Massachusetts and other states.

From the beginning, the janitors’ strike gained popular support. Reflecting this, a Boston Globe editorial on Sept. 28 argued in favor of the union’s “legitimate demands” and called on the owners of Boston’s buildings to pressure the cleaning contractors “to accept union demands for decent salaries and benefits.”

Student groups, church groups, labor activist groups like Jobs with Justice, and even local politicians supported the strike. The Republican governor threatened to end a $1.9 million State House cleaning contract unless the city’s largest cleaning company settled favorably with the SEIU. The state’s Democratic senators and mayor also pressured the companies to reach an accord with the union.

Janitors are poorly paid and live paycheck to paycheck, like so many U.S. workers. A strike for them is costly and dangerous. Nevertheless, the janitors waged a strike that hit about 100 buildings and forced the companies to make concessions. The janitors’ morale and militancy were strong enough to win partial victories. That strength and unity will be needed to maintain and extend this victory.

Contract Not Yet Ratified

The Boston Globe reported on Oct. 30 that many janitors felt the proposed contract “fell far short of what they had expected.”

Carlos Melera, 45, a Salvadoran who earns $10.20 an hour cleaning at Northeastern University, said: “The majority of janitors don’t agree with the settlement—we fought for more than they gave us.”

The staff director of the SEIU local, Jill Hurst, was quoted as saying: “Janitors should have an honest debate about whether it’s the settlement they want, and if it’s not, we’ll have to figure out where to go from here.”

One striker, Manuel Hernandez, 27, a Salvadoran who works part-time at One Federal Street, said: “There just aren’t enough benefits after striking for so long.”

One of the contract negotiators, Alex Muñoz, 26, who was also a picket line captain and a union steward in Wilmington, Massachusetts, predicted that the janitors would ratify the contract despite its shortcomings. He said: “A lot of people aren’t happy about the pay and there has been a lot of miscommunication between the negotiators and janitors, but we look at this as opening the door. We can’t expect the companies to pay everything up front. We have to be realistic—it takes time.”

Voting on the contract was scheduled for the week of Nov. 4–8.