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D.C. Janitors Fight to Keep Up With Soaring Costs of Living

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When Jaime Contreras, the vice president of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) East Coast building services local, 32BJ, addressed a crowd of union workers in downtown Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, his language was attuned to the union’s diverse membership: “¡Buenos tardes! Good afternoon! Salam!” he shouted, addressing hundreds of janitors from across the D.C. region who had convened to rally and march through the streets. The crowd of predominantly black, Hispanic, and Latino union members responded with cheers of “Sí se puede” (“Yes we can”) and danced to pop music booming over the PA system in McPherson Square, a small park surrounded by bustling sidewalks and rush-hour traffic.

In the coming months, 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service workers union in the nation, will bargain for new janitor contracts on behalf of its more than 175,000 members up and down the East Coast. In the D.C. metropolitan area, 32BJ is negotiating with the Washington Service Contractors Association, which represents more than 25 regional employers. The D.C. contract will be the first to expire, on October 15, along with Philadelphia’s. If negotiations fail in D.C., the 10,000-plus 32BJ janitors in the area—who together maintain almost every commercial office building in the region—will stand up for their livelihoods by going on strike. Until last year, most American unions had given up on striking, but SEIU’s janitors have been striking and winning since the 1990s.

“We’re a militant organization,” 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg told me. “Mobilizing workers is how we win. We’re sitting in one of the wealthiest real estate markets in the country, and it’s growing. We want to make sure these employers are responsible and treat their workers—the ones who bring value to their properties by servicing them and keeping them safe—earn a good, decent living and have retirement security and dignity.”

The top priorities for 32BJ’s new contract in the D.C. region are wage raises and increased time off so that workers can deal with immigration issues. Additionally, 32BJ is fighting for more full-time hours in the D.C. suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia. “In Washington, D.C., four years ago, we were able to win increased access to full-time hours, so now we’re trying to spread that access,” Julie Karant, a 32BJ spokeswoman, told me. Even with the union’s victory for more full-time work four years ago, however, most cleaners in the region are still part-time.

Attesting to both SEIU’s political clout and the janitors’ David-vs.-Goliath moral clout, D.C. City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and at-large member Elissa Silverman joined the rally, and both briefly took the stage to express their support. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who was also in attendance but did not stand on stage, addressed workers with a megaphone: “Please understand that our city cannot move forward without the people that help to make our office buildings work. We see you every day, and I want you to know that we’re right there beside you.”

As the rally ended, roughly 400 janitors—many of whom had either just gotten off work or were about to start their shifts—took to the streets adorned in the union’s purple and gold colors, stopping traffic and chanting, “No justice, no peace!” Passersby looked on curiously and drivers honked their horns, either in support or frustration.

Bragg told me that while the union’s promise to strike is mainly about better wages and benefits, such issues are deeply entwined with racial justice. On average, janitors in America (mostly non-union) make $25,000 per year (though the average male janitor makes $10,000 more than his female counterpart), and more than one in three are of color. Along the East Coast, 32BJ overwhelmingly represents black, Hispanic, and Latino janitors. In D.C., which has one of the highest gentrification rates in the country, low-income workers and communities of color are being rapidly displaced by wealthier whites, according to a recent study by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. In order to keep apace with the rising cost of living in the city, 32BJ janitors often work more than one job.

The union is determined to “make sure people of color still have a place in this city, and that they have the ability to stay here,” Bragg told me. “The only way to do that, as the economy gets tougher and tougher to live in, is by having good jobs … that allow [workers] to raise a family with dignity and respect.”

But the implications of the D.C. contract stretch far beyond the region itself. If negotiations go well, the D.C. area will have a new contract that can set a precedent for every other 32BJ contract on the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Florida. Taken together, the battles for good contracts constitute the country’s largest private-sector collective-bargaining action this year. Winning good contracts could very well add momentum to a resurgent union movement nationwide that has begun to regain power over the last several years.

Ultimately, the union is ramping up to fight against some of the country’s wealthiest property owners, whose buildings are maintained and kept operational by some of the poorest workers. 32BJ and its members are on high alert, and as their purple-and-gold placards said, 32BJ is “ready to strike” if the D.C. contractors fail to reach an agreement.

“If they don’t give it to us,” Bragg told the crowd on Tuesday, his voice booming, “dammit, we’ll take it.”

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