Justice for janitors

BY CLIFFORD GINN

On Monday evening, janitors from the Service Employees International Union’s Local 254 went on strike, in what may ultimately be the largest labor strike in Boston’s history. The janitors are asking for full-time work, health insurance, and what would essentially be a living wage. Currently, only three out of four Boston janitors have health insurance and most are only given part-time jobs, making $39 in a four-hour shift. These janitors must work two or three jobs to survive, and cannot spend meaningful time with their families. Because a doctor’s visit costs $79 — two days’ pay — workers often must choose between food and medical care.

For now, the strike is targeting UNICCO, which employs roughly 5,000 area janitors and holds contracts to clean 27 percent of all office space cleaned in Boston. UNICCO did propose increasing wages to roughly $12 an hour over the next four years (safely under a living wage), but refused to expand full-time employment opportunities or health-care coverage. UNICCO argues that the wage increase constitutes a substantial improvement over what exists. However, even with this increase, Boston will lag far behind many of the nation’s cities, despite being one of the most expensive cities in which to live. Furthermore, the janitors’ current pay rate hardly constitutes a reasonable baseline — UNICCO kept wages low by capitalizing on union corruption. Local 254 was actually taken into receivership recently because its leadership had deliberately failed to represent its members’ interests.

The Boston community is rallying to the janitors’ cause. Senators Kennedy and Kerry have spoken out in support of the workers’ demands, as have gubernatorial candidates Jill Stein and Shannon O’Brien, Boston’s City Council and Mayor Menino, religious organizations, immigration advocates, progressive groups and thousands of citizens who are contributing to a fund to support the janitors. Boston-area workers will honor the strike, and the employee pension funds in New York and California have agreed to support the janitors.

The affected building owners are also calling on UNICCO to make a better offer, although they have not yet offered to cut their own profits (the Boston real estate industry pulls in $4.8 billion in rents annually) in order to fund such an offer.

As is so often the case in union struggles, UNICCO is resorting to illegal tactics to strengthen its position. Workers have been sent home or even fired for wearing union buttons. In the months leading up to the strike, active union members were singled out for harassment and intimidation, a violation of both federal and international law.

However, UNICCO certainly has grounds for believing that the federal government will look the other way. Non-enforcement of the nation’s labor laws has been the norm in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and during the Reagan administration, the rate of unlawful firings in representation elections rose from eight percent to 33 percent. Employers have always closed factories after successful organizing drives, but the rate at which they do so tripled in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s passage. The February 1997 Economic Report of the President, which touted the Clinton administration’s economic achievements, noted that “the changes in labor market institutions and practices” contributed to the “significant wage restraint” that played such an important role in the economic growth that took place in the 1990s. Since 1985, U.S. labor costs have fallen to the lowest in the industrial world, after the U.K.

At the national and international level, leaders are doing everything they can to load the dice against the working poor. It is clear that these leaders care little about creating a free market, if such a thing could even exist. Free trade rules are applied selectively: What can a poor nation do when U.S. farm subsidies destroy its agricultural industry? How a market operates, and who wins and loses, are dictated by background rules that are neither natural nor fair. It is easy to see how a confrontation between a multinational behemoth with freedom to move operations and capital where it wishes and a worker with few alternatives is likely to end.

However, Local 254 and their community supporters are demonstrating that Americans retain their basic values. There are still people who believe that all human beings are entitled to live with dignity, and that workers should be able to earn enough to feed, clothe, house and educate their children, and provide them with essential medical care. Even if the rules governing our market were neutral or fair, Americans understand that there still would be no logical relationship between the price the market is willing to pay for a janitor’s services and the amount a janitor needs to live with dignity.

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