Boston Janitors Contract Was Big Step Forward

To the editor:

On December 8, members of the Boston SEIU Local 615 janitors bargaining and contract action team came together to celebrate how far they had come and to celebrate their new contract. While the final contract did not reach all its initial goals, it represented a major step forward for Boston area janitors and provides the basis for building a strong janitors movement in Boston.

Labor Notes' December story on the Boston janitors' settlement ["Boston Janitors Say Strike Settlement Is No Victory"] left readers with the impression that the settlement was a poor one, rather than the best settlement that could be reached given the history and existing power of the union. In a number of areas the contract made important breakthroughs which will enable the union to build for the future.

For many years, SEIU 254 was in the hands of a corrupt leadership that had little use for its members, especially immigrants. As readers of Labor Notes know, the Service Employees International Union placed the local in trusteeship 21 months ago.

The previous bargaining relationship between the contractors and union was cozy. In many ways, 2002 bargaining represented a first contract in which the union would mobilize members, build bridges with community and religious leaders, and inspire the public. The union successfully partnered with Jobs with Justice and key community leaders, making the fight a fight of the entire Boston community. While the union mounted its contract fight, the old guard leadership continued to organize and undermine the leadership.

The strike centered on a few key demands: conversion of part-time jobs to full-time jobs, expansion of health care coverage, increased wages, and the end of a two-tier structure that paid workers in the suburban tier less, making it difficult to organize new workers and undermining the union's ability to control the market and bring up the rates.



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While workers may always want to focus on money, the leadership recognized there were pressing issues that they also needed to address in the contract--health insurance, increasing reliance on part-time workers, and the two-tier suburban wage structure that undercut wage rates. Union leaders recognized that the contract needed to address the market disparities if the union was to grow and improve standards for janitors.

The contract makes important gains in closing the gap between part- and full-time workers and encourages management to convert part-time jobs to full-time ones by providing the same pay rate for both--eliminating the incentive to use part-timers under the contract's two-tier system. Employer health care payments under the new contract are made per job slot, not per hour worked, so employers will save money by having part-timers' work more hours. For example, an employer that pays $170 a month for health insurance will spend $2.12 an hour for benefits for a janitor that works 80 hours a month, but only $1.70 an hour if the janitor works 100 hours a month. The Boston janitors' contract extends full paid employer health insurance to 1,000 more workers.

Workers won greater wage increases than in the past. Pay will go up $2.75 to $3.00 an hour over five years. Under the old administration workers got only a $1.00/hour increase over three years and suburban janitors got a measly 45 cents. The contract created the same rate for both suburban and urban workers. Urban workers won two paid sick days (they had none) and can take time off to care for a sick child, take care of immigration matters, or take care of family business.

Although a five-year contract is a long period, the Boston janitors will be negotiating their next contract at the same time as the janitors in New York City. Boston cleaning contractors are the same as New York ones. The combined strength of Boston janitors and the clout of SEIU 32B/J in New York will enable the union to mount a serious effort that will extend from Boston to New Jersey.

The union engaged members throughout the process, electing a rank and file contract action and bargaining committee. Hundreds of janitors, led by workers, took to the streets on nightly marches. By bringing together janitors and a wide array of community, religious, and political leaders, the union, Jobs with Justice, and others created a crisis for the city. As the strike continued, planners called for a "day of chaos." Mayor Menino and other political officials intervened in the process, pushing the parties toward a settlement.

The union waged a major fight to bring justice to the Boston building service industry. The 2002 strike made significant gains but it was only a start and reflected the current level of power and organization of the janitors. Before 2002, Boston area janitors were invisible, had no organization and power. After the contract fight, they are very visible, have gained power within the industry, and sent the contractors a message that things will not be the same. Now these members will turn to building their union.