Janitor Fights For Extra Hour

Moura shares personal story at bargaining table

Folasade Jimoh

Jeffrey Moura, a custodial worker at the Graduate School of Education, is involved in a campaign to win health benefits for janitors.

At around 6 p.m. on weeknights, Portuguese accents and laughter fill Larsen Hall at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) as janitor Jeffrey Moura enters to clean the building with his father and his neighbors.

Clad in a Red Sox cap, black Nikes, and a bright mustard-colored shirt, Moura, 24, arrives at Harvard after finishing his shifts at two other jobs—assembling light fixtures at a local distributor and buffing floors in a hair parlor.

From 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Moura speeds from job to job, working alongside his father to make ends meet for their close-knit East Cambridge household.

But in addition to juggling his busy schedule, Moura has recently joined a union campaign to win health benefits for himself and other janitors.

According to a 2002 agreement between Local 615 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the University, all janitors working sixteen hours a week are entitled to health care benefits.

Moura and his co-workers, subcontracted employees of Prospect Building Service, just miss the cut with contracts for fifteen hours.

“The One Hour Campaign” is the union’s latest tool to convince the University to extend the janitors’ hours.

For his part, Moura is bringing personal experience to the bargaining table in an effort to add a human dimension to a union struggle.

ONE MORE HOUR

Moura wakes up at 5 a.m. five days a week to commute to his first job, where he works on his feet all day assembling parts for carpet displays and lamp fixtures.

When Moura has time after his first job, which usually lasts until mid-afternoon, he often drives across town to help his father earn a little extra cash.

“We work at a hair parlor buffing and waxing the floors. Then we go home, eat really quickly, and come straight here [to Harvard],” Moura says.

But instead of buffing floors on the other side of Boston last Friday, Moura had an appointment with his local union representative, Courtney Snegroff, and James LaBua, deputy director of Harvard’s Office of Labor and Employee Relations (OLER), which oversees all labor policy implementation and contract negotiations.

As a newly-elected union steward, Moura came to speak on behalf of his co-workers at the GSE—the only janitors on Harvard’s campus who do not have health benefits because they are short one hour.

He says he explained to LaBua why they need the benefits.

“There are two women here and they get Social Security but they get very little at their other jobs,” Moura says. “There’s a woman who pays over $1,000 a month on medication who needs pills for her diabetes.”

Snegroff later praised Moura’s poignant presentation.

“Jeffrey was great,” Snegroff says. “He spoke personally and from the heart about how important health care is for himself and his family.”

According to Snegroff, LaBua argued in the meeting that the GSE does not have the funds to give Moura and his co-workers one more hour.

“LaBua said that the school could not afford it,” Snegroff says. “He said that there might be a way through layoffs or retirement to increase a few people’s schedules but that there was no way the group of 14 could get the one hour increase.”

LaBua declined to comment last night.

PROTECTING HIS CO-WORKERS

Since few members of the cleaning staff speak or read English, Moura is an important asset because he explains the intricacies of the labor contract to his co-workers.

“There was a woman who was sick here and was having trouble breathing. I brought her home and she had to stay home two weeks,” says Moura. “I called Prospect Cleaning and told them she did not get paid even though she had sick time according to the contract. I read the contract and she did have the right to get paid.”

The employee ultimately did get paid, according to Moura.

Although Moura is currently focused on the “One Hour Campaign,” he says he believes that his obligation to help other workers extends beyond Harvard’s campus.

“We went to a rally at the Hyatt [hotel] because the kitchen workers and janitors were getting paid $7 an hour,” said Moura. “After our cause is finished, I’m willing to go to rallies and union meetings to help other people.”

NIGHTS AT THE ED SCHOOL

Moura drives his father and two other elderly women on the cleaning staff to work every evening.

“I’ve known them my whole life,” says Moura, who has worked at the GSE for five years. “One’s my neighbor and the other lives 10 minutes away.”

The entire staff arrives at 6 p.m. and divides up to scrub, mop, and vacuum Larsen Hall.

As Moura mops, he describes the extra effort he and his father devote to keeping classrooms clean.

“We bring our own fan from home [to make the wax dry faster] because they don’t supply us with that much equipment,” he says. “Some people just walk in during the waxing and it’s upsetting because you have to redo the entire thing.”

Walking down the corridors, he describes the phantom occupants of each room. He knows the GSE staff by face and by name, since they often work after hours.

“This lady is here every night and we talk a lot,” Moura says, gesturing towards one office, trash bags in hand. “She tells about her day and what she’s going to do.”

Pointing to an Evian water bottle on a shelf, Moura remarks that she would offer him a drink if he were thirsty.

Although Moura says he realizes that his connections with friends sometimes wear thin due to his work schedule, he appreciates the connections he has made while on the job.

“You get to meet new people,” says Moura. “You make a lot of friends, but the downside is you don’t have that much free time.”

FATHER AND SON

GSE security guard Fred Gaudrault says that Moura takes after his father, who has worked at the GSE for 19 years.

“He’s older in his work habits,” says Gaudrault. “He’s kind of a clone of his father—very conscious of the job he is doing and not afraid to do extra.”

Although both men spend half their work day together, Moura says that he also loves spending time with his father at home.

“We’ll play dominoes until two in the morning,” says Moura, laughing and playfully nudging his father for confirmation. “We read each other like books; we play so often. I know what he’s going to play before he does.”

Looking affectionately at his son, José Moura agrees that he values the closeness of their relationship.

“My son is like my friend, not a son,” says José Moura. “We travel together, work together, and talk together. He buys me nice cigars all the time and I help him as much as I can.”

Moura, who started working odd jobs at age 13, is no stranger to putting in long hours. He says he decided not to go to college because he worried about paying back loans, so instead he wanted to “focus on working.”

He says now he’s looking ahead.

“Right now I’m saving to buy a house,” says Moura. “It’s basically to secure [my family] for the future.”