Boston Striking Janitors: Sold Out By Union Leadership

From September 30th to October 24th (2002) the streets of Boston were filled with the noise of drums banging, whistles blowing, and voices crying, "Huelga, Huelga". Janitors across the city were on strike for more full time work, health care, sick days, and a living wage. Through their strike they achieved media attention and community praise. Hundreds of religious, student, community, and political groups signed on and demanded respect for the janitors. In the end however, the union caved to the contractors and left the janitors with little to show from their struggle.

The Janitor's Situation: Under their old contract most of the janitors were only allowed to work part-time. This meant that they could not receive any health insurance, which was given only to full time workers. As most of us know, life without health insurance is nearly impossible. Visiting a doctor in Boston without insurance costs around $79, and filling out a prescription for a simple drug, such as an antibiotic, would cost a janitor an entire days wage. Many janitors with young children or older relatives therefore spent much of their paycheck on basic medical needs. Janitors were also denied sick days. Consequently, janitors were forced to decide between their health and that nights meal.

According to the National Low-Income Housing Commission, a wage of more than $15 per hour is needed in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Boston. Under the Master Agreement most janitors made around $9.80. So while the building owners drove off to their plush homes in the suburbs or Beacon Hill, janitors struggled every month to pay the rent.

The Strike Looms: The Master Agreement came up for renegotiation this September, but the push for a strike started months before that. SEIU (Service Employees International Union) organizers began making daily trips to work sites around the city, urging janitors to strike. Often they were stopped by police or harassed in other ways. Building owners who saw what happened in Los Angeles and Denver, where Justice for Janitors campaigns had already occurred, dug in their heels and prepared for the worst.

On April 13th thousands of janitors kicked off the campaign by marching the Freedom Trail in Boston. The Freedom Trail is a tourist attraction that takes you to various Revolutionary War sites around the city. The march was intended to boost moral and let the city know that the janitors were tired of being overlooked. On June 14th the negotiations began with SEUI and 30 cleaning contracting companies sitting down at the table.

The contractors were led by UNNICO, a cleaning company that contracts the most janitors in Boston. During the entire negotiation process UNNICO would be the most unwilling to give in to any demands. On August 31st janitors packed into the historic Old West church and voted on whether or not to strike. They overwhelmingly voted yes.

At this point things began to become anti-democratic. Janitors were often confused about when the strike date was going to be, and the union kept things secret. They would speak to us and say things like, "Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week" over time changing when the strike date was.

While the buzz of a possible strike loomed on the evening news, activists across the city began to step up their tactics. Symbolic actions at the Prudential Center, one of the buildings under the contract, led to arrests. Others blocked traffic at major intersections carrying banners proclaiming, "Health Care is not a privilege".

The strike date was finally set for September 30th and a large march was planned to support many of the picket lines. The march began at Northeastern University and stopped traffic on Huntington Avenue, a large thoroughfare into downtown. At each of the picket lines the crowd was noisy and excited. Janitors shook bottles full of rocks, students banged on drums, and children carried placards. The event was extremely festive and optimistic, no one could doubt that the janitors were filled with a sense of empowerment and ready to face the challenges that lay ahead.

The Strike: Around 2,000 of the 10,000 janitors under the contract walked out on strike on September 30th. Picket lines began to spring up around the city and other unions such as the Teamsters and UPS vowed not to cross the lines. However, the picket lines were often not seen. This is because the buildings were scattered across the city and often a shift of janitors may only include one or two people. This gave the picket lines limited visibility. To counteract this, marches and solidarity rallies were often held at buildings in order to draw attention. Hardly a day went by in Downtown Boston when you did not see a line of purple shirted janitors march by. These marches and rallies were of great importance because they drew needed media and public attention to the janitors cause. Boston NEFAC and other anarchists were often present at these marches and waved black and red flags in a show of support. Another tactic used by activists and organizers was calling on building owners and trustees to issue statement in support of the janitors demands. This was the tactic that many university students used in their efforts.

Student Support: One group that stands out for it's work with the campaign, is Boston Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). SLAP is a coalition of labor activists from local universities. This includes students from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Emerson, Northeastern University, and more. SLAP played a pivotal role in gaining campus support for the janitors, and also for orchestrating city campaigns. Some of their actions throughout the strike included early morning banner drops, marches, a tent city, countless flyers and press releases, and various acts of civil disobedience.

Northeastern University was an important worksite for the strike because it had the most janitors under the Master Agreement. The organizing at Northeastern was led by a student group, The Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), which is a non-hierarchal, social justice group. The Progressive Student Alliance began putting pressure on the Northeastern president, Richard Freeland, to issue a strong statement in support of the janitors. As soon as classes began this fall started petitions and letters were passed around campus for students to sign. Over 1,000 students signed onto the campaign. PSA members, coinciding with an SEIU rally on campus, delivered the letters and petitions to Freeland's office, but Freeland never responded. A few days later President Freeland was scheduled to give his, "State of the University", address. This is where all of the Northeastern donors and trustees listen to Freeland explain how great everything is on campus.

During his speech two students walked in front of him silently with a banner proclaiming, "Justice for Janitors". The two were quickly escorted out of the building. The impact of this action was immediate. The president of the Student Government claimed that the petition was void because he did not approve it, and late wrote a scathing anti-PSA editorial to the school newspaper. This did little to deter PSA from acting , rather it motivated them to step up their tactics. President Freeland continued to ignore the students letters, and so, along with SLAP, PSA hosted a tent city in front of Freeland's office and waited for him to arrive. At around 7:30 am Freeland showed up and was met by about 15 students asking him why he didn't support the janitors. He gave the answer, "I believe in the collective bargaining process." This answer did not satisfy PSA, so their next action was a screening of the film "Occupation" on the building containing Freeland's office. "Occupation" is a film that details that was carried out by Harvard students 2 years prior. Their sit-in was for a living wage for Harvard's janitors. The message was clear, "If necessary, we will occupy this building!". PSA continued to support the janitors until the end of the strike.

The Strike Winds Down: On Saturday October 19th, a major rally and march took place at Copley Square. The rally featured Billy Bragg and had around 800 people in attendance. The rally then left Copley and marched around the touristy shopping section of Boston. Midway through the march participants gathered around the Prudential center, a huge shopping mall that was a previous target. Around 100 marchers stormed through the food court entrance and began a very noisy parade through the mall. The police quickly blockaded the door and prevented others from entering. The rest of the march placed their banners against the glass and banged hard at the windows chanting, "We'll be back, We'll be back". The march then headed back for the street and met up with the 100 that had marched through the mall. Eventually the march ended back at Copley and activists dispersed.

The next week was spent planning for the "day of chaos" or "day of conscience". This day was scheduled for October 24th and was supposed to be a day filled with civil disobedience. The plan was for separate, autonomous acts of all sorts to happen throughout the day and bewilder police. Student, community, religious, and anarchist groups began planning various actions. The media began to hype up the day as a free for all of disorder and violence. The Boston Herald continually warned people working in downtown Boston to be prepared for anything, that the janitor supporting hoodlums were on their way, and we were.

The afternoon before the "day of chaos" the news came on the television. The union had reached a deal, the janitors had won. The terms were to be announced later that evening and supports and janitors around the city celebrated. The struggle was finally over, janitors could go back to work. Many assumed that fear over the "day of chaos" had caused the contractors to cave. Then we waited anxiously to hear the terms of the agreement.

The Terms: Unfortunately, and expectedly, the terms left much to be desired. The terms of the new contract were:

-Janitors pay would be increased to $13.10 over four years. The raise would be $.25 every 6 months
-1,000 janitors would receive healthcare beginning in 2005. This would only be given to janitors in the largest buildings
-Janitors would receive two paid sick days a year
-Janitors could now no longer be assigned to an arbitrary location. Before they could be moved without warning at any time
-Immigrant janitors can clear up problems with the INS without losing seniority or their pay rate.
-The five year contract will expire the same time as the 30,000 janitors in New York does

This agreement of course lacks the one essential thing the janitors had fought so hard for: healthcare. Not even all of the janitors who went on strike qualified for healthcare, and even those who did will not receive it for another three years. Basically the janitors are in the same situation they were in when they went on strike. The raise will be minimal and widespread so it will take time, and janitors who went on strike will find it doubly hard to make up for their lost income. All of this before the large civil disobedience action that was planned to bring the city to its knees.

Also the pressure had been building from other directions. Building owners were threatening to fire UNICCO, the State had already fired contractors, other businesses that shared an office with UNICCO were threatening to withhold rent and nearly every political figure in Boston had claimed support for the janitors. The union then had the nerve to proclaim "Victory! Victory!" as if much was actually won. The union has said that this agreement is a stepping stone and that more will be won in three years, but for every janitor still struggling three years is an eternity.

When the "victory" was announced janitors once again filled the Old West Church and those who felt abandoned by the union booed and screamed "Strike!" Janitors will vote on this agreement November 7, but with most back to work and the media and community fervor over, it is likely that they will accept it. This is just another example of a bureaucratic union bowing down to the bosses. With all the support and the day of action ready, the union could have waited or held out for a better health care package. Instead they claimed victory, while the janitors pray that they don't get sick.

Sofia Perovskaya Collective
NEFAC Boston