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Jersey Janitors Win Tentative Contract

December 19, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Building service workers in New Jersey took to the streets and secured a new contract agreement.

NEWARK, N.J.—Barely 24 hours after they voted to authorize a strike, New Jersey building-service workers reached a tentative contract agreement with a group of office-cleaning contractors.

The four-year deal, announced by 32BJ SEIU Dec. 18, would cover 7,000 office cleaners who work in 500 buildings around the state. The union said it includes significant raises and expanded protections against sexual harassment, and would not begin charging workers premiums for health insurance, a main area of dispute during the talks.

The workers will vote on whether to ratify it “within the week,” 32BJ said.

The more than 25 companies involved have contracts to clean buildings and facilities such as the Prudential Center arena in Newark, the PATH train stations, the Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City, and offices of the Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck, Novartis, and Teva pharmaceutical companies.

32BJ said the agreement would raise wages by up to $3.80 an hour, leading to some workers having a starting wage of $18 by 2023. Kevin Brown, the union’sNew Jersey director, told LaborPress Dec. 17 that they hoped to bring custodians’ median income up from $31,000 a year to $37,000, half of what a United Way study estimated was a living wage for a two-income family in New Jersey. Some cleaners now make as little as $10.50 an hour, barely above the state’s $10 minimum wage, bargaining-committee members said.

The deal would also let workers “keep their quality family health insurance without premium sharing.” That is an important benefit, as while office cleaners make relatively low wages, 32BJ’s current contract gives them health coverage without premiums or deductibles. 

The union said the agreement would provide new “comprehensive protections against sexual harassment.” These include requiring employers to post a sexual-harassment policy in the workplace, protecting workers against harassment by third parties, and a process for discipline. This was also a key issue, as many custodians are women who work alone at night.

It would also improve retirement benefits for many workers, expand paid sick leave, and create a statewide labor-management committee “to discuss the physically demanding conditions of working as a janitor.”

“Our bargaining committee members are quite happy with the new agreement, and to have better wages that will allow their families to keep up with the rising cost of living in New Jersey,” Brown said in a statement released by 32BJ. 

 “As someone who lives check to check, I’m relieved that we settled this contract, and just in time for the holidays with my kids,” said Ederle Vaughan, a Prudential Center cleaner who serves on the union’s bargaining committee.“I can keep on receiving affordable health benefits, which is critical to my family and me.”

A 32BJ spokesperson said the New Jersey deal could set a pattern for New York City, as many of the employers involved are the same companies. Members there voted Dec. 18 to authorize a strike if they can’t reach a deal by the time their contract expires Dec. 31. That agreement, with a group of commercial-building owners and cleaning contractors represented by the Realty Advisory Board, covers 22,000workers in 1,300-odd buildings.

Cleaners in Philadelphia and the Washington-Baltimore area ratified contracts earlier this year, while Boston’s doesn’t expire until next year.

December 19, 2019

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