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"Janitors for Justice" and a New Front for Labor

The Justice for Janitors movement marks a new front for labor, as contract talks begin that cover about 75,000 commercial cleaners in the eastern U.S. Photo courtesy 32BJ SEIU.
The Justice for Janitors movement marks a new front for labor, as contract talks begin that cover about 75,000 commercial cleaners in the eastern U.S. Photo courtesy 32BJ SEIU.
June 18, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Janitors plan to rally on the streets during rush hour tomorrow, as talks start on contracts that cover about 75,000 commercial cleaners in the eastern U.S.

Their supporters say it's part of an important new direction for labor.

In Virginia, House Delegate Alfonso Lopez will speak at a rally in Arlington, commemorating the 25th anniversary of what is known as the Justice for Janitors movement. He says when it began, many of the workers made $5 an hour.

Lopez contends raising low pay for service workers and winning union representation have been good for them, and for America.

"It's not just a win for working families, but employers, the economy and the public in general,” he insists. “What we're trying to do make sure we have a stable, reliable workforce that's being paid a livable wage."

The Service Employees International Union links the Justice for Janitors movement with the Fight For 15, pressing for fast food workers to be paid $15 an hour, and to battles for other low-wage workers, such as security guards.

It's one of the fastest-growing parts of the labor movement nationally. Lopez points out that these are workers who can't be replaced by machines or have their jobs shipped overseas, and a lot more people are relying on them.

"How do you automate a janitor?” he says. “It's not like it's a factory assembly line. But also, how many communities have raised the minimum wage and thrived – have increased overall jobs and their economic base?”

Lopez says one important issue for janitors in the Washington area is that too many are only getting part-time hours, with lower pay and fewer benefits.

Currently, a part-time commercial cleaner makes $10.60 an hour. Full-time janitors get 50 cents an hour more, and employer-paid health care.

Lopez adds other employers have found that moving service workers to a livable wage has actually been good for profits.

"I think you find you have a more reliable, more loyal and more effective workforce, as opposed to a workforce that is, in many cases, desperate," he states.

Some employers argue they can't afford to guarantee their cleaning staffs a full-time living wage and benefits. Union officials says the offices their members clean are part of Washington's multi-billion-dollar real estate industry, which can well afford the contract terms.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV