Janitors vote to authorize strike as contract expiration looms

At a spirited meeting in downtown Boston today, more than 1,000 unionized janitors voted overwhelmingly to authorize their negotiating committee to call a strike if their contract is allowed to expire on Sept. 30 without a new one in place.

The SEIU Local 615 union, which represents around 14,000 janitors in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, says it has been negotiating unsuccessfully with an association of cleaning companies for about one month. The janitors, who work in many prominent Boston buildings, including the Globe’s offices, are seeking increased hours and health benefits.

“They want us to take their charity, but we deserve more,” Lowell janitor and union negotiator Silvia Clarke told a cheering crowd of janitors and their supporters. “We don’t want millions, but we are not taking pennies.”

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Matt Ellis, a spokesman for the Maintenance Contractors of New England, said in a phone interview this afternoon that talks so far have been “productive” and the companies were looking forward to resuming negotiations Monday.

“There’s been some progress so far,” he said. “It’s in everybody’s best interest to come to an agreement here, we all want that.”

However, he said, if workers do strike, the group will have supervisors do janitorial work alongside replacement workers.

“We’ve got an obligation to service these buildings,” Ellis said. “We’ve got contracts, and we’re going to do what we have to do to keep the buildings clean.”

Union leaders stirred the crowd, which also included family members and community activists, with speeches and chants during the lead-up to the standing vote. Members of the union stood, cheered, and held brightly colored “YES” placards to indicate their choice in the vote. There were no apparent dissenters.

The union’s current contract was negotiated in 2007. An earlier agreement between contractors and Local 615 was only reached after a high-profile four-week strike by janitors in 2002.

“They want us to go backwards and take away some very hard-fought gains,” said union president Rocio Saenz, referring to the expiring agreement. “Nobody wants to see a strike. Workers don’t want to see a strike. But this is about their livelihoods, their families, and their communities.... People will be very ready to do whatever it takes.”

Saenz accused the companies of intentionally limiting individual workers’ hours to keep them from earning benefits like health insurance, with many janitors kept just an hour or two short of the threshold. Taxpayers ultimately pick up the cost, she said, when injured or sick workers end up in emergency rooms or on publicly funded insurance plans like MassHealth.

“State taxpayers, at end of day, are subsidizing these huge, big companies in our region,” she said.

Ellis disputed that assertion, saying there are more full-time jobs now than in 2007 when the current contract began.

“There’s no effort to purposefully hold back hours,” he said. “That is not something the companies do.”

Clarke, the negotiator, said discussions were progressing slowly because the cleaning companies had not offered specific responses to many of the union’s proposals. She called the tone of the meetings “disrespectful.”

“We pick up the trash, so we are trash” to them, she said. “When we sat down together at the beginning, we agreed it was going to be respectful. But after a month, we have no real progress, and that’s very disappointing for us. We should be ending now.”

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