Janitors Go Hungry For Workers’ Rights

A New England union representing about 16,000 custodians organized a five-day fast in Burlington, Mass. last week, in an effort to convince owners of the city’s Nokia building to hire union-friendly contractors.

Half a dozen participants, including Harvard janitor Bedardo A. Sola, stood on a street corner near the building—wielding signs and informing passersby of their cause—during the day and slept in the Burlington Commons at night, with only water to sustain them.

Services Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615—which represents workers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire—organized the protest against The Gutierrez Company, a Burlington-based real estate development company.

Organizers accuse the company of hiring “irresponsible” contractors—two of which are under investigation by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board for violating workers’ rights—according to Charlie W. Noss, one of the event’s organizers.

“It’s a very spiritual, moral, religious event for the folks, drawing attention to the issue and making a moral call to change the situation,” Noss said.

But the director of property management for The Gutierrez Company, David Potenza, said that SEIU 615 has publicly maligned his company.

“Our buildings are not dangerous, and our cleaning companies pay wages that are comparable to the union’s suburban contract,” he said. “SEIU is attempting to force us to hire union contractors by means of false and misleading allegations that they cannot substantiate.”

The Gutierrez Company did not hire American Housekeeping, one of the two contractors accused of irresponsible behavior, but it is responsible for hiring Resource One, another one of the accused contractors, according to Potenza. Either way, Nokia reserves the right to manage working conditions in the building, he added.

Eight Harvard students participated in a two-day “solidarity” fast of their own, trekking out to Burlington Friday night for a post-fast rally. Jamila R. Martin ’07, a member of the Student Labor Action Movement who fasted last week, said SEIU 615 has been trying to organize janitors in the city for a while, but the anti-union sentiment in the area has made it very difficult.

SEIU 615 has been organizing on campus in support of Saintely Paul, a former Harvard janitor who was fired last June, allegedly for fainting while on duty. The case is still in arbitration, according to Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn.

SEIU 615 organizer Courtney A. Snegroff said the union is slated to meet with University officials this Wednesday.

“In the case of Saintely Paul, if he had been fired and not been in the union, that would have been it for him. He would have had to find another job and health care, and the difference between that and now is the union,” Martin said. “And that’s what the workers in Burlington are hoping for now. No more random firing. No more harassment on the job. These are all kinds of things that workers can’t do individually.”