Boston janitors strike for better job conditions

Boston-area janitors have participated in an escalating series of strikes and demonstrations since Sept. 30. Though larger in scope, the movement to improve job conditions for Boston’s unionized janitors is akin to the one initiated last year by Tufts students, faculty, and the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU).

Of the 10,700 janitors represented by Local 254 of the SEIU, many have mobilized to demand living wages, more full-time work opportunities, and healthcare benefits from their contractor, UNICCO. The “high-profile campaign has galvanized the business community as few issues in recent years have,” The Boston Globe reported last week.

SEIU members began a large-scale strike at over 60 locations in Boston, including Center Plaza, located directly across from City Hall. The health benefits and wage increases currently being demanded by SEIU for unionized Boston janitors are nearly identical in nature to those that were demanded on a smaller scale at Tufts last year.

SEIU and six of the contractors arrived at an interim agreement on Oct. 4, though its provisions cover only 100 of the striking janitors. UNICCO executive James Canavan characterized the agreement as “meaningless” because any final agreement will invalidate the temporary one, the Associated Press reported.

Union members plan to continue to strike at a greater number of buildings each day as a means of gaining more bargaining leverage.

The impetus for activism by Boston-area janitors was sparked by protests at Harvard in the spring of 2001 and at Tufts last fall.

“What happened at Tufts was the culmination of trying to get janitors fair treatment,” said Physics Professor Garry Goldstein, who spoke at a Teach-In about the poor wages and benefits of Tufts janitors last fall. “For the union people, [the improved Tufts contract] was the first victory in their effort to get living wages for janitors in the Boston area, and SEIU is now leading the way in the striking to bring about fair working conditions for Boston janitors.”

In July 1994, Tufts switched from directly employing its janitors to using the contractor UNICCO, which provided its workers with fewer benefits, wages, and hours. In August 1997, Tufts switched to the contractor OneSource, which did not hire the majority of the workers employed under the UNICCO contract and further limited employees’ hours, wages, and benefits.

Once Tufts students became aware of these events, many began to mobilize in order to draw attention to and ultimately improve the custodians’ working situation.

After several months of lobbying and negotiations, the talks between SEIU Local 254 and OneSource yielded a three-year contract that raised Tufts janitors’ wages to $11.45 per hour for both part-time and full-time workers.

Under the new contract, employees also have greater access to full-time work status and, by extension, to family health insurance and benefits.

Prior to the events at Tufts, students at Harvard took over a campus building for three weeks to make a statement for better treatment of Harvard janitors, also employed by OneSource. The student activists, in conjunction with SEIU, were ultimately successful in their quest to improve the working conditions of the university’s custodial staff.

During the movement for improved janitorial working conditions at Tufts, administrators were not directly involved in the negotiating process. Administrators and owners of the Boston buildings affected by the greater Boston strike initially took a similar stance to that of Tufts’ administrators. But Michael Quinn, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association, recently told the Globe that “if this doesn’t get settled in a week, or two, or three from now, we may have to get involved.”

Tufts’ Goldstein, who was present at some of last year’s negotiations between SEIU and OneSource, said dealing with the managerial staff of companies such as OneSource and UNICCO can be extremely difficult. Similarly, the Globe reported that a federal mediation session on Sept. 28 “proved futile because [UNICCO and the other cleaning companies] put no health-care proposal on the table.”

During the movement at Tufts, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) held several Teach-Ins and Learn-Ins to show support for the custodial staff. In a similar pattern, other SEIU unions and their leaders traveled to Boston to show their support for the workers of Local 254.

President of SEIU Local 32 Mike Fishman addressed the strikers, saying “You have shown great courage, and we will stand with you. We will fight together for dignity and respect,” the Associated Press reported.

In another demonstration of solidarity, executives of John Hancock Financial Services, FleetBoston Financial Corp., and Stride Rite Corp. have pledged fiscal support to the striking janitors.

A varied base of allies may be the key to success for the Boston janitors’ movement, just as the support of students, faculty, and workers enabled the agitation at Tufts to come to fruition. “The success in achieving better working conditions for Tufts’ workers depended very much on having active students,” Goldstein said.

The strong leadership of SEIU, at Tufts proved a determining factor in the movement’s success, and most likely will also play a large part in the wider Boston area movement. The SEIU is “a wonderful group, really; [they’re] able to get people active and excited and willing to carry on in the face of management that can be difficult,” Goldstein said.