NEWARK, N.J.—New Jersey members of 32BJ SEIU voted Dec. 17 to authorize a strike if they can’t reach a contract with office-cleaning contractors by Dec. 31, when their current agreement expires.
The union represents more than 7,000 custodians at over 500 commercial buildings and public facilities in the state. The committee of more than 25 contractors is demanding that workers begin paying premiums for health insurance, according to 32BJ officials who say that is unacceptable.
“They want to increase our payments, and we’re not going to do that,” 32BJ state director Kevin Brown told LaborPress just before the strike-authorization vote at Newark’s Symphony Hall.
“If we don’t get what we want, we’re going to go on strike,” says Ederle Vaughan, a mother of three who commutes from the outer suburb of Morristown to her job at the Prudential Center arena in Newark. She named the key issues as “Health care. Pension. Wages. Respect on the job,” ticking them off with her fingers.
The buildings a walkout would affect include the Prudential Center, the PATH train stations, the Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City, and offices of the Allergan, Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck, Novartis, and Teva pharmaceutical companies. New Jersey is one of several areas where 32BJ’s contracts with cleaning companies expire Dec. 31, including New York City, said a union spokesperson. If 32BJ goes on strike, Teamsters Local 469, which represents UPS drivers in New Jersey, said it would not cross picket lines.
Brown says 32BJ is also seeking a wage increase that would bring custodians’ median income up from $31,000 a year to $37,000, what a United Way study estimated was the minimum living wage for one person in a two-income family in New Jersey.
Some workers make as little as $10.50 an hour, barely above the state’s $10 minimum wage, says Michelle Lewis of Newark, a 32BJ shop steward for school cleaners in South Orange and Maplewood. “They have to work three or four jobs,” she told LaborPress. “That’s why we’re out here fighting.”
Sexual harassment “is a huge issue for our members,” says Brown. “They’re working alone at night, and they’re mostly women.” The union would like to see the contract set up an 800 toll-free telephone number for workers to report harassment and assaults, to require training on the issue for supervisors and managers, and to specify that every company designate a person to take reports of assaults.
The cleaning companies want a two-tier contract in which newly hired workers would be paid less, says Mary Frances Cuadrado, a Merck lab technician who’s on the union’s bargaining committee. If that happened, it “will make them go after the ones with more seniority.”
She said the eventual contract is likely to include “good language” on sexual harassment, however.
LaborPress attempted to reach three of the cleaning contractors involved in the negotiations, but was not able to get a response.
Before the vote, union members filed into the worn grandeur of the 94-year-old Symphony Hall, chanting “Thirty-two! B-J” to the beat of Afro-Cuban drummers on the stage. Afterwards, they filed out onto Broad Street, picking up picket signs with “Ready to Strike” on one side and “Listo Para La Huelga” on the other.
They marched north in the cold drizzle, a two-block-long river of purple caps and yellow rain ponchos, chanting “¡Si se puede!” behind the orange- and brown-clad marching band from Weequahic High School in southwest Newark. They passed pawnshops and renovated loft buildings, discount clothing stores and the gray stone of City Hall. “¡Contrato!” a woman marshal in a Day-Glo yellow vest called out.
They paused briefly to chant “Shame on you!” outside 744 Broad St., the 35-story National Newark Building, where cleaning workers’ wages and benefits were cut when the owner, Emerita Urban Renewal, fired union contractors.
A planned rally at Military Park was cancelled because the vote and march—delayed an hour so they wouldn’t overlap with the funeral of Jersey City police detective Joseph Seals, killed Dec. 11 by the couple that later massacred three people at a kosher grocery—had run late, and too many people had to leave for the night shift.
“In Jersey City, it is important now more than ever that we lift up working families,” Jersey City Council President Rolando Lavarro, who attended the strike vote, said in a statement released by 32BJ. “I urge the employers to do right by the workers who deserve to be a part of the real-estate boom.”
As marchers waited on line for coffee and pastry, Michelle Lewis explained why health insurance is personal for her. “I had breast cancer years ago,” she said. “Without insurance, I don’t know how I would have come out of it.”
32BJ’s union custodians now have a basic copayment of $20 for medical services, but don’t have to pay premiums or deductibles, she said. If they had to pay more, “a lot of people won’t be able to make it.”
“We’re 7,000 workers,” said Cuadrado. “We will fight until the end.”