Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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In 15 days, a labor contract covering more than 11,000 janitors in the D.C. region expires. That’s why dozens of cleaners took to the streets on Tuesday evening to protest during rush-hour traffic.

The 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began negotiating with the Washington Service Contractors Association, the group that represents the workers’ employers, on Sept. 12. Negotiations stalled when the union started discussing money.  

“One of the goals is to try to equalize leave, holidays, and vacation in Maryland and Virginia as we have in D.C.,” said 32BJ SEIU Vice President Jaime Contreras before the protest by phone. “We’re still far apart there and they haven’t even given us a response on the wages.” 

Contreras wouldn’t specify what the union is asking for—he would only say that the last time 32BJ SEIU was at the bargaining table, four years ago, the union negotiated for a wage increase of 50 cents per hour. 

“I made it very clear that I want more significant wage increases than we got last time,” he said. Currently, wages range between $12.10 per hour for part-time janitors and $16.10 for full-time janitors. 

Cleaners also voted to authorize a strike on Tuesday should they not reach an agreement by Oct. 15, when the current contract expires. The last time they held a strike was in 1996. If cleaners strike, they don’t work and thus don’t get paid; additionally, benefits run out after 30 days. 

“The fact that workers are authorizing a strike should send a message to the building owners, to the tenants in the buildings, and to the employers that … come October 16th, if we don’t have a contract, there’s going to be a strike and they’re going to have to pull their own trash, clean their own toilets, and scrub their own floors,” said Contreras. “I don’t think anybody wants to take it all the way there but workers are prepared to do what it takes to get a fair contract.”

Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

Before they marched in downtown D.C., 32BJ SEIU workers held a rally at McPherson Square. In attendance to show support was Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman

“Que vamos hacer?” Contreras asked the crowd during the rally. “Huelga,” the workers responded.  

In addition to wage increases, the union is fighting for more full-time work opportunities. Four years ago, the Council increased janitors’ access to full-time hours by setting minimums for private buildings that are 350,000 square feet or more. The union is now hoping to negotiate something similar for janitors working elsewhere in the region. 

“Thanks to our union contract, I have good employer-paid health care. So I’ve been able to see a doctor who’s helping to treat my knee problems,” said Rodrigo Flores, who has worked as a cleaner for the last 17 years, during the rally in Spanish. “But too many of us in Montgomery County and in Arlington don’t have access to full-time hours and don’t get employer-paid healthcare. This isn’t right – that’s why we are fighting to help them get the employer-paid health [care] they need and deserve,” he added.     

Alexandra Burgos, for example, has worked as a part-time janitor in Silver Spring for nearly a decade. Due to her part-time status, she doesn’t receive employer-based insurance and so travels to the Dominican Republic just to see the doctor.  

The union is also asking for increased time off for workers who need it to resolve immigration-related issues. Roughly 90 percent of the workers are immigrants who mostly migrated from Central America. Indeed, thousands of unionized cleaners are among the 40,000 residents in the D.C. area with Temporary Protective Status from El Salvador, which expires in Jan. 2020. 

“In our contract there’s a provision that gives people 90 days to deal with immigration issues without losing their job or their seniority,” Contreras said. “And we’re trying to increase that provision—to give them more time to deal with issues because of the uncertain times that we’re living in.” 

At one point during the march, workers paused to shout at the White House. “Hey Trump, shame on you,” they shouted, given the administration’s anti-immigration policies.