A Prudential Center Janitor Explains Why A Major Strike Looms Over Boston

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Manuel Fernandez picks up your mess at the Prudential Center. Not just yours, in fact, but also that of the spoiled brats who leave their stinking Pinkberry cups strewn across the food court tables, and the shitty little kids and men with bad aim who soil the rest rooms. For this he makes $16.20 an hour, with good benefits, and he doesn't complain – even though he hustles from 6:30am to 6pm, and gets a mere hour of rest time spread out across the day. If anything, Fernandez is grateful for his job with the Prudential's third-party contractor, the Waltham-based Janitronics Building Services, who have nearly doubled his salary since he began working there 16 years ago.

For his pay increase and benefits – healthcare plus six sick days annually – Fernandez credits the Service Employees International Union Local 615, which represents about 18,000 property service workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, 14,000 of whom are janitors. Even with their support, though, Fernandez says that workers are routinely told that their jobs are on the line, and are regularly threatened with termination just for standing up for themselves. Janitronics, the allegation goes, manipulates hours so as to have fewer full-time workers who receive benefits. “These companies are always trying to suck out every dollar that they can,” says Fernandez.

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Just last Saturday, Local 615 workers voted unanimously to strike – as soon as Monday, October 1 – if their demands are not met by the Maintenance Contractors of New England, with whom they're negotiating. So with their contract expiring this Sunday, on Thursday afternoon, organizers from the SEIU and other groups were on Copley Square, where they trained about 100 community activists in nonviolent direct action. Most people in the crowd were familiar with the techniques – they're veterans of such demonstrations as last year's sit-in at Bank of America on Franklin Street, as well as a number of foreclosure eviction blockades and, in some cases, even the last Greater Boston janitor's strike in 2002, when public pickets won SEIU members many of their current benefits and wages.

It looks as if an extension of contract negotiations is imminent. Even if they're still at the bargaining table, though, workers may hit the streets soon. “What you could see are many different acts of civil disobedience,” says one organizer. Though they note some differences, worker advocates compared the predicament to recent happenings in Houston, where janitors recently revolted against behemoths like Shell, Chevron, and JP Morgan, which were ignoring demands for basic living wages. “We'll see if I'm right," said the organizer, "but I think the business people are going to be smarter here than they were in Houston.”

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I'm happy to report that there's been significant coverage of this looming strike – some of which has even been supportive. In a day and age when teachers are vilified and nonchalantly degraded by forces from the left to the far right, it's actually encouraging to know that at least one group of people who keep America moving is spared. Perhaps there's a bit of humanity and respect left for laborers; as one activist said to me yesterday: “It's hard to imagine anybody looking at anyone who's a janitor – say, the person who cleans the office that they work at – and calling them 'greedy.'”

Support is mounting. A number of elected officials including commonwealth treasurer Steve Grossman are writing letters on behalf of the workers, as are other unions, while the SEIU has some of the same advocates who coordinated pickets down in Houston working here. Groups like MassUniting, Right to the City, ACE, and the Boston Workers Alliance are also on board, all but guaranteeing that there will be heads in the street if and when the strike erupts. As for workers like Manuel . . . they're on board – unanimously. They have nothing to lose. Except, of course, for their jobs. “I came here to keep on with the struggle,” says Fernandez. “We don't want them to commit these injustices. We won't stand for it.”

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