By JOE AUCIELLO
BOSTON-Better pay. Health insurance. Respect. Nearly 2000 janitors in Boston, represented by the Service Employees International Union, organized, marched, and won a nearly four-week-old strike against the largest cleaning service companies in the region. The five-year contract offered by the Maintenance Contractors of New England extends benefits that have never been granted here before to part-time workers.
The 10,700 janitors in SEIU Local 254 are predominantly Latino immigrants. Approximately 8000 janitors 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, received 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 country.
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 1000 Boston janitors who work in the 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.
Union members are expected to ratify the agreement in the near future. 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).
The Boston Globe also 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.”
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. About 7000 part-time janitors will receive no health benefits at all.
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 for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Andrew Sum, correctly noted, “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).
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) who rallied, marched, raised money, and maintained picket lines, the union leaders could never have wielded what leverage they did have.
From the beginning, the janitors’ strike gained popular support. An early Boston Globe editorial ( Sept. 28, 2002) 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.”
Local politicians supported the strike, as did church and student groups. 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. A strike for them is costly and dangerous. Yet, 2000 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.