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A Salute to NY's “Invisible Labor Force”

June 16, 2011

NEW YORK - Hundreds of workers lined the corners of New York's Fifth Avenue from 34th to 59th streets on Wednesday, in the shadows of some of the buildings they keep clean.

They're the ones you see only when you work late: commercial office cleaners who sweep up after the executives and the secretaries - and they've been fighting for respect ever since an incident 21 years ago this week.

The Justice for Janitors campaign has its roots in 1994 when police fought with custodial workers trying to organize in Los Angeles, says Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents janitors, cleaners and custodians throughout New York and other Eastern states. The event is commemorated annually with events in major cities.

"Every year we remember that incident, but we also use it to remind the public about the 'invisible workforce,' the commercial office cleaners who, for the most part, are underpaid, mistreated and still fighting for their rights."

The campaign also has evolved into a fight for immigration reform, Figueroa says, adding that an underground economy pushes down wages and working conditions for all workers. The campaign tries to help property-service workers lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class, he says, but he worries that the middle class is disappearing.

"Despite companies making more money and CEOs earning 400 times what the average worker earns in our economy, workers are still earning less than what they actually contribute, and unions are under attack by elected officials and by companies alike."

Figueroa outlines the gains made in the 21 years of Justice for Janitors.

"We have been able to organize from minimum wages to creating good-pay jobs now that have pensions, have health care, full-time work, not just simply part-time cash-man work. There is still a lot of work to be done."

This year, he says, the union is beginning the process of bargaining on new contracts across seven Eastern states and seeking to organize additional workers elsewhere.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY