Janitors Strike in Boston

Janitors Describe a Limited Life; Benefits as Important as Pay

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  9/05/2002

This is Oscar Dominguez's life: The 43-year-old father of three shares an East Boston studio with a friend, works through the night mopping floors and dusting classrooms as a janitor at a local university, and sends any money left over at the end of the month to his family in El Salvador.

The $9.95 an hour he earns is enough to get by, he says, and it certainly dwarfs the $1.50 an hour he earned working in a cement factory before coming to the States, but the cost of living here is high and he believes he and his colleagues deserve more.

Though nervous he may lose his job, Dominguez is one of nearly 11,000 janitors in Greater Boston considering a strike in hopes their activism will land them better salaries and benefits.

"We all come here with the dream that we can save a little and help our families," he said before he and thousands of janitors rallied yesterday on Boston Common. "But that doesn't mean we should have to do without respect and dignity. Is it right, after years working for the same employer, they don't pay for sick days?"

After taxes, Dominguez earns about $1,000 a month. A quarter goes to paying rent and whatever doesn't go to food, clothes, utilities, transportation, and phone bills, he says, he sends to his three children and his parents in El Salvador. Although he gets no sick pay, Dominguez works full-time and, unlike many of his colleagues, receives two weeks of vacation pay a year.

On a typical workday, the soft-spoken Salvadoran spends more than an hour getting to his job, taking the T to the commuter rail and then walking the final half-mile to Brandeis University.

He often arrives a half-hour
early for his 10 p.m. shift and punches in as soon as possible. Then, the supervisor distributes the keys and Dominguez works until 6 a.m., doing what janitors do - vacuuming, cleaning toilets, and dusting off desks. In the winter, he often shovels snow.

"It's hard work, and it can be exhausting," said Dominguez, who arrived in Boston three years ago and says he has a visa to work. "The hours are terrible, but it's a good job. I wouldn't want to lose it."

For Jose Guevara, a 35-year-old janitor also from El Salvador, the problem isn't so much the pay, although he says he deserves more. It's that after 15 years in this country working as a janitor, he says he can't find a job with health insurance that covers his three children.

Guevara and his wife, Reina, live in an apartment in Chelsea and he earns about $400 a week, cleaning and doing odd jobs at 2 Center Plaza downtown. Through their jobs, the two have insurance for themselves, but they have to shell out hundreds of dollars a year to cover their children's insurance - money they say they can't afford.

Another grievance the couple and many other janitors have is a lack of job security.

"They can fire us for anything," said Guevara, in between chants of "Huelga! Huelga!" or "Strike! Strike!" at yesterday's rally. "There's nothing we can do. We have no control over our lives, and they abuse their power."

Standing beside him, Guevara's cousin, Joaquin, also a 35-year-old janitor and father of three, said he, too, appreciates the job, but barely makes a living.

Like most of the janitors in the area, Joaquin Guevara works part time, just 20 hours a week, cleaning floors at the Prudential Center. He lives in Lynn and his wife cares for their young children.

Although he works other odd jobs, he says, it's difficult to find work because, like his cousin and most janitors, he speaks only a few words of English.

"As long as we stay united, we won't be defeated," Guevara said. "We believe, at this point, a strike is the only way to improve our lives."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

By David Abel and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff

They haven't worked for weeks. Their bills for everything from rent to electricity are mounting. And sometimes they're so hungry, they say, their stomachs hurt.

Cousins Maria Lopez and Mario Melendez don't speak a word of English, although they have lived in East Boston for two years, and they often have to scrounge for work - washing dishes at restaurants, cleaning toilets at hotels, working odd jobs for temp agencies.

Their desperation, they say, has driven them to a nondescript, street-level office in downtown Boston where the Salvadoran cousins sign a few forms, stand for photos, and prepare to do something they don't want to do, but feel compelled to: cross a picket line with scores of others and betray thousands of their fellow Central American immigrants, on strike since early this week.

"They have their rights, and we have our necessities," said Melendez, 34, who's trying to support his wife and two children back in El Salvador.

"I don't have money to eat," said Lopez, 28, who sees the strike by Boston-area janitors as an opportunity. "If I unite with them, are they going to give me money? Are they going to feed me? This is our stomachs demanding our help!"

The dire need for jobs among the area's growing number of impoverished residents, many of them Latino immigrants who see $10 an hour as a good wage, has made it easier for contractors like Unicco Service Co. to fulfill threats to replace the striking janitors.

Even before negotiations broke down nearly three weeks ago between the janitors' union and cleaning companies, the contractors were drafting plans for the looming strike, according to a document prepared by the Maintenance Contractors of New England.

The delay in the start of the strike, which was originally threatened to begin a month ago, gave the contractors time to plan in detail, the memo shows. They hired replacement workers using newspaper advertisements that didn't identify the employers. They drew up a list for the most critical cleaning tasks, including arranging for backup trash removal procedures. They stocked up on as many supplies as possible, arranged for security and special transportation for replacement workers, and they told management personnel to "observe and keep written records of any picketing."

As the last contract was about to expire, according to the document, the contractors planned to hire replacement workers on a temporary basis and use supervisory personnel from other locations to complete the work. "Although within our legal rights," the memo reads, hiring replacement workers permanently would "produce intractable political and public relations problems."

"However, having said this, the above should not be construed as a waiver of the association's right to engage permanent replacements," according to the "strike plan and preparation," a copy of which was provided to the Globe by the Service Employees International Union, the janitors' union.

The lack of a promise for a permanent position drove some aspiring replacement workers away.

When Elvira, a 50-year-old Peruvian immigrant from East Boston, saw the ad in the Boston Herald this week, she thought her prayers for a real job had been answered. But when she arrived at the office at 37 Court St. and learned she would only be offered a temporary position, she said she put down the application and walked out.

"I'm looking for a job that will last," said Elvira, who wouldn't provide her last name.

For others, the part-time nature of the work was appealing.

Jorge Cespedes, 53, moved to the South End from Colombia five years ago and says he has recently had problems making ends meet. He works from 5:30 a.m. until noon five days a week as a janitor at the Meadow Glen Mall in Medford, earning about $1,600 a month and receiving health benefits. But his rent has risen and his costs are now higher than his income.

Living alone and with little understanding of English, he has few options other than janitorial work. After taking an application at Unicco, he said: "All I know is that I need to find another job."

Carrying their lunches, Maria Lopez and Mario Melendez came to Unicco headquarters prepared to be hired on the spot.

But on Wednesday afternoon Unicco was only looking for women. The contractor sent Melendez home and asked him to come back the next day, when perhaps there would be work available.

Lopez, who shares a three-bedroom East Boston apartment with her cousin and three other Salvadorans, had better luck. Unicco officials escorted her and a group of women to a passenger van. She was off for an evening shift of cleaning at an undisclosed building.

When asked if she knew the meaning of the English word "scab" - a replacement worker who crosses a picket line - she said no, but that she understood the idea.

"This is not easy to do, but I need to eat," she said. "Nothing else matters."


By David Abel
Globe Staff

J.C., a 40-year-old father of three, walked off his job cleaning a major downtown Boston office building three weeks ago, and chanted "Justicia for Janitors" on a picket line.

Though he still hopes the union will win him and his colleagues better pay and benefits, the Salvadoran now feels betrayed and set up to fail. Last week, he and five of the 12 janitors who work the day shift with him decided to return to their jobs.

"It's like we were sent to war without guns," says J.C., who as other janitors interviewed wouldn't give his last name and asked that the building where he works not be identified. "How can you fight that way?"

About 2,000 janitors have respected the picket lines since the strike began Sept. 30, according to Local 254 of the Service Employees International Union, which organized the job action. The Maintenance Contractors of New England, about 30 companies employing more than 10,000 janitors in the area, puts the number of striking janitors at less than half that - and they insist more and more janitors are returning to work.

Regardless of the actual figures, there's little doubt that most - if not all - of the nearly 100 buildings hit by the strike are being cleaned. At the high-rise where J.C. mops floors and empties trash cans full time, only four of 12 janitors on the day shift remain on strike.

Like his colleagues, J.C. wasn't eager to cross the picket line. He says he deserves more than the $10.20 he earns per hour, and believes it's unjust that thousands of other local janitors are trapped in part-time jobs without health insurance or sick days.

But just over a week after the strike began, he and his colleagues grew frustrated. The woman from the union who organized their building had disappeared, they say, there were arguments about whether the picket line should be in front of the loading dock or the building's front doors, and a sizable number of replacement workers seemed to be comfortably settling into their jobs.

Then, as the plan for the strike seemed increasingly sketchy and J.C. and others questioned their future on the picket line, the threats started. They would be traitors if they left, other janitors told them. Angry, vilifying messages were left on their answering machines at home.

"They didn't treat us fairly," says Dilcia, a Dominican who works with J.C. "It wasn't right."

Another janitor, who wouldn't give his name, says: "Everything seemed so poorly organized and they were threatening us. It got very ugly."

Union officials say they frown on threats, but they do try to persuade janitors to stick it out.

They say they have dispersed strike pay to more than 1,800 janitors - far more than the 760 contractors say are out on strike - and argue that with nine out of 30 contractors signing interim settlements, morale is high.

"We're confident about our numbers," says Jill Hurst, the union's staff director. "For every janitor who's becoming convinced that the strike's ineffective, I can give you 10 others who feel the other way."

For example: Lourdes Hernandez, 43, a mother of three from the Dominican Republic, has been on strike from the beginning. For 25 hours of work a week cleaning One International Place, she's paid less than $250.

The strike may have lasted longer than she would like, but she says she's patient and resolute. "We're going to win," she says. "We just have to remain united."

On break, in the bowels of their building this week, J.C. and the five janitors who returned with him to work, shake their heads when asked about crossing the picket line and breaking the unity.

"Yes, you feel guilty," one man says, not revealing his name, "but there wasn't unity."

They didn't understand the strategy and no one kept them informed, they say. When the picket lines seemed to thin after the first few days, as did their bank accounts, they say they couldn't take it anymore.

"We felt like we were blind and we were saying, `What are we doing?' " J.C. says. "We want the strike to succeed, but this just didn't seem the way to do it."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.


By David Abel
Globe Staff

Many were euphoric. Some were unsure how to take the news - they wanted more details. And others were downright peeved.

Despite mixed reaction to the contract their union agreed to, ending a nearly four-week-old strike, all the janitors interviewed last night agreed on two things: They were relieved they would soon be able to return to work and they were happy they wouldn't have to picket in the cold.

About 1,000 janitors crammed into Old West Church near City Hall, cheering from the rafters, standing atop the pews, beating drums, blowing horns, and screaming as Mayor Thomas M. Menino applauded their action.

"Continue to work for social justice," said Menino, barely audible over the jubilant crowd. "You're important to all of us."

As they filed out, some slapped hands while others shook their heads.

For Mynea Cea, a 35-year-old Salvadoran who works part-time at 125 Summer Street, the most important thing the janitors won was "dignity and respect." "We're very happy," she said. "We can return to our jobs with our heads held high. Whatever the details, I have no doubt we won."

Marcos Hernandez, a 25-year-old part-time janitor also from El Salvador summed up his feelings this way: "It's very simple: This contract will help many janitors."

Others reserved their opinions until reading the fine print of the agreement. They wondered: Why would only 1,000 additional janitors be getting health insurance and why would it take three years? Why would it take five years for their salaries to increase only a few dollars an hour, to at most $13.15? And was two sick days enough?

"They're saying we won," said Oscar Aguilar, 40, another part-time janitor from El Salvador, "but what exactly did we win? It's not really clear. I don't know how to react."

Others, however, had more decided opinions about the agreement, which the janitors must still affirm before it takes effect: They felt it left them out.

About 30 janitors from outside of Boston stood at the gates of the church, shaking their hands and questioning union officials. What happened to us, they demanded to know. Why would only janitors in Boston's largest buildings be getting health insurance and better pay? Weren't they on strike for the past four weeks as well?

"We're very angry - we're not getting anything," said Jose Leger, 60, a janitor from the Dominican Republic who now earns $8.54 an hour working in Lawrence. "This won't help us."

Maria Martes, 42, another Dominican janitor working in Lawrence, said: "This is worse than we started with. Do they not have any respect for us?"

Still, they and others don't regret the struggle. Many said they believe they proved immigrants with little voice in the community could unite and have an impact.

Her voice hoarse after chanting "Justicia para Janitors" for nearly four weeks, Mynea Cea said neither she nor the other low-paid immigrants will ever be invisible again.

"Our voice has been heard," she said. "We can be proud of that."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com