Low pay, lack of respect force janitors to march, maybe strike
Members of Service Employees 32BJ are prepared to strike if they have to. | Cory Clark / Sipa via AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Low pay and lack of respect on the job, among other issues, sent tens of thousands of unionized janitors into the streets of major East Coast cities on Oct. 1-2. They will be forced to strike, said their union, Service Employees 32BJ, unless building owners come to their senses and bargain a new and better contract.

The biggest protest may well have been in D.C. Thousands of janitors hit the streets during evening rush hour Oct. 1, serenaded by pro-worker honking horns. And, in a reversal from her usual stands, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) joined them with a bullhorn.

“Please understand that our city cannot move forward without the people that help to make our office buildings work,” said Bowser. “We see you every day, and I want you to know that we’re right there beside you. Sí se puede!”

The janitors responded with maracas and the chant. They also lauded D.C. council-woman Elissa Silverman, an independent, who was a News Guild member when she was a Washington Post reporter. The rally and the chants were in both English and Spanish as many of the janitors migrated to D.C. from Latin America.

They’re also part of the continuing mass movement of low-paid workers—janitors, fast food workers, adjunct professors, warehouse workers, port truckers—who have hit the streets in the past several years, fed up with low pay, lack of respect and lousy working conditions.

Local 32BJ’s contracts with D.C. building owners expire Oct. 15, and cover 11,000 workers in D.C. and its wealthy suburbs of Montgomery County, Md., and Arlington County, Va., plus 600 in Baltimore. Contracts covering another 123,000 janitors nationwide, are also expiring, the local said.

“The economic development around the commercial real estate boom means there is more than enough wealth to ensure these workers are provided their fair share of the profits they help create,” Jaime Contreras, SEIU’s vice president for the D.C. metro area, said on the union’s website. “This contract will prove whether the region’s prosperity will ever trickle down to move low-wage workers into the middle class.”

And 32BJ added the D.C. metro area is now so rich, and so expensive, that janitors often must toil at two or more jobs just to keep up with the cost of living. Their current janitorial wages range from $12.10 to $16.10 hourly.

Besides D.C., janitors mass-marched in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore, among other cities. The union represents 70,000 janitors in Philly alone.

“I recently lost my husband so I have only me to support myself. These buildings don’t clean themselves do they? We work hard and we deserve to be paid fairly. We will strike if we don’t get a fair contract,” Baltimore janitor Frances Smith tweeted.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.