A Strike For Justice

Boston’s janitors are right, courageous to walk out over lack of health coverage

Over 1,600 janitors are currently on strike in Boston seeking health benefits, full-time work and higher pay. The Service Employees International Union has been in negotiations with cleaning contractors since the summer, and Boston’s more than 10,000 janitors have been working without a contract for over a month. The strike began on Monday night as workers refused to work and instead joined picket lines at buildings and campuses around Boston and its suburbs.

The janitors’ demands are completely reasonable. Many of Boston’s janitors live hand-to-mouth, working two or three part time jobs to support themselves and their families. A part time job can pay as little as $39 per shift. Those jobs are often for the same cleaning contractor or for more than one contractor covered by the Boston master contract. Such a lifestyle is hardly part time; between several jobs, janitors often work more hours than a full time job but receive none of the benefits of full time work. Their schedules leave them little or no time for their families or communities.

Without health insurance, a doctor’s visit can cost an entire day’s wages. Janitors have to choose between getting health treatment or paying their rent—and rarely chose the former. For many of Boston’s janitors, getting sick means staying sick, especially as taking time off work, or just getting a good night’s sleep, is often infeasible. Few of Boston’s janitors have health benefits, although workers regularly receive insurance and higher pay in other cities.

The janitors now on strike are risking their jobs and livelihoods. Unicco, Boston’s largest cleaning contractor, is already employing replacement workers. The desperation of those willing to cross a picket line for a paycheck speaks to the bravery of those who will strike. Living in conditions that can lead one to break a strike, it speaks volumes that so many janitors still decided to walk out. Additionally, that Unicco and other companies can find replacement workers underscores how little job security the striking janitors have. Despite all this, the number of janitors on strike is growing, as more and more join together in demanding wages and benefits on which they can support themselves. Their courage is admirable.

Over a thousand building trade workers in Boston have honored the picket lines, often losing pay. The Teamsters are not making deliveries to any building where janitors are striking; construction crews stayed off affected construction sites, including a new building at Northeastern University. Such solidarity is crucial to the success of the strike.

The Justice for Janitors campaign first came to Boston with last year’s negotiations between this same union and Harvard over the contract that covers Harvard’s janitors, which is separate from the rest of the city. Those negotiations brought real gains for Harvard’s workers—sizable wage increases and more accessible benefits. The current citywide campaign seeks to bring similar improvements to all Boston’s janitors.

We fully support the janitors in their strike and hope the contract can be settled soon with their demands met.