Area Janitors Strike, Rally

Alexandra N. Atiya

Students and janitors march through downtown Boston last night as 2,000 workers went on strike.

BOSTON—About 2,000 janitors employed by the city’s largest janitorial company went on strike last night after negotiations broke down earlier last month.

Janitors who work for UNICCO marched through the streets of downtown Boston with their supporters, including students from Harvard and other local colleges. They chanted in English and Spanish and waving signs that read “Jobs for Justice” and “Health Care for All.”

“Tonight, instead of picking up their brooms, they’re picking up their picket signs,” said Cynthia R. Kain, a spokesperson for the Service Employers International Union (SEIU), which represents the 11,000 janitors employed in the Boston area.

“Janitors are taking a stand for every working family in Boston who needs a good job with health insurance,” she said.

Yesterday’s strike is part of the nationwide union campaign called Justice for Janitors, which aims to secure health insurance and higher wages for all workers and their families. Currently, only full-time workers receive such benefits.

The strike is part of the local union chapter’s desire to catch up to the wages and benefits of other major cities in the country. It is also the culmination of the National Student Week of Action against UNICCO. Yesterday was the group’s national call-in day to the janitorial company.

“We work too much, and they pay us too little,” said Clara Y. Mejia, who cleans at the John Hancock building and is supporting her three children on a part-time salary. “It’s very difficult. We want more benefits and medical insurance.”

SEIU members say benefits for all workers would encourage employers to hire full-time employees. Full-time workers on the whole receive slightly higher wages than part-time workers. UNICCO contends that a full-time workforce would result in part-time employees being laid off.

“It doesn’t matter if you make $10 an hour, [but] only work four hours a night. It’s about having enough for people to live on,” said Andrew G. Gaitan, an SEIU organizer.

Tensions have escalated since the SEIU contract ended August 31. Last month, four Harvard students were arrested at the Prudential Center while protesting janitors’ lack of benefits.

Harvard janitors established a separate contract last February and are not participating in the strike. Still, the rally enjoyed widespread support from other union members—hotel workers and iron workers from as far as Kansas City attended to show their solidarity.

Closer to home, Harvard janitor Daniel M. Mejia said he marched in the rally to support his fellow workers, though his situation has improved.

“Before, it was very bad at Harvard,” said Mejia, who sported a shirt reading Unidad y Accion. “Now all the janitors are very happy, because we have a new contract.”

The strike began with a rally at Northeastern University—which employs UNICCO janitors—where students, janitors and community supporters demanded that university officials issue a statement supporting the janitors.

The marchers then moved into downtown Boston, joining more strikers as they passed through other UNICCO sites. Six hours later, the evening ended with a lecture on strikers’ rights and a barbecue back at Northeastern.

Students from schools across the Boston area, including about 20 members of Harvard’s Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), turned out to support the janitors.

“It’s something that we have had a lot of progress on at Harvard, and hopefully can be spread to the rest of the city,” said Emma S. Mackinnon, a member of PSLM who is also a Crimson editor.

PSLM has been involved with several actions for janitors, including rallies last November and January and a traffic block in February.

“It’s good for raising the morale and getting attention around the issue,” said PSLM member Jessica A. Fragola ’04, one of the students who was arrested at the Prudential last month.