New Haven demands justice for janitors

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Over 1,000 janitors and their supporters gathered here June 15 to say the time has come for janitors in New Haven to become union members.

“You cannot live on the wages you earn and your kids cannot afford a good education,” Hector Figueroa, SEIU Local 32 BJ secretary treasurer, told them. “We have won many struggles before, and this is one more that we are going to win.”

Figueroa added, “We want to send a strong message to the real estate community in New Haven that we will not tolerate janitors in New Haven earning poverty wages.”

The average janitor in the New Haven area makes $7.40 an hour, barely above the state minimum of $7.25 and only a third of what it costs to live in the area. Without a union, these janitors have no sick days or other benefits. Many are employed only part time. Most are immigrants, many from Latin America.

By contrast, Figueroa said, in the greater Hartford area, janitors are union members and earn upwards of $11 an hour with benefits.

“We are here today with you — we believe in social justice,” said the Rev. Jose Champagne, president of the New Haven Spanish Clergy Association. “We have been in many struggles. Fair wages win dignity for working people.”

Among participants were demonstrators from Stamford, Hartford and New York City.

Just before the march kicked off, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said, “I am very hopeful that good minds and goodwill will prevail.”

Chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” the demonstrators marched through downtown to New Haven City Hall where they were greeted by Mayor John DeStefano.

“I heard banging and sirens,” DeStefano said. “This is what America is about — hardworking people demanding fair wages.”

DeStefano has joined some 140 organizations in signing the Justice for Janitors Bill of Rights.