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Mobtown Beat

Sweep Stakes

Janitors Take Wage Battle to the Streets

By Tom Scocca | Posted 6/20/2001

Strictly by head count, Justice for Janitors Day in Baltimore has so far been a small-scale operation. It's quarter past 5 p.m., June 15, and the large round plaza on the north side of Fayette Street above Charles Center is three-quarters, if not five-sixths, vacant. There are maybe 75 people on the uptown edge of the plaza, most wearing purple Service Employees International Union (SEIU) T-shirts. The public-address system is a bullhorn.

Then again, there are four different groups of striking janitors here, and the ratio of strikers to supporters is approaching 1-to-1. This is the 16th day of a walkout by 10 workers who clean 100 E. Pratt St.--the girder-topped former IBM building downtown--and they've been joined, in the past two days, by janitors from 110 S. Paca St., 120 E. Baltimore St., and 2 N. Charles St. The strikers are bolstered by SEIU organizers and dozens of other sympathizers: people from the Up-to-Date industrial-laundry strike (Mobtown Beat, May 2, www.citypaper.com/2001-05-02/mobs2.html), from the NAACP, from the AFL-CIO. There is also a delegation of trade unionists from a half-dozen Latin American countries, and there is Daewoo Motor Workers Union policy director Kwang-Jun Yu. Yu addresses the assembly in Korean, then passes the bullhorn mic to an English interpreter, who passes it in turn to a Spanish interpreter.

Extreme solidarity is the point here. SEIU Local 82 has been campaigning since February to organize the city's janitors, but doing so is not as straightforward as organizing an auto plant or paint factory. Janitors work in small crews, scattered among different buildings. The crews are hired by different contractors, in the service of various building owners. To bargain for higher wages, the union needs to get all these parts together--to have "an industrywide strategy," Local 82 organizing director Maria Naranjo says. The goal is to organize enough of the janitors to be able to bargain for higher prevailing wages citywide. Between 400 and 500 of the city's 800 commercial janitors have signed union cards so far, Naranjo says.

Despite the logistical obstacles, the national SEIU has been been successfully pulling off such campaigns in recent years. (Although it can take a while--10 years to unionize janitors in Washington, for example.) In other cities, the janitors' efforts have been drastic and headline-grabbing: clogging traffic in Beverly Hills, shutting down D.C.'s Roosevelt Bridge during morning rush hour. The June 15 event here commemorates a 1990 march in Los Angeles that ended with police beating demonstrators.

Baltimore's Justice for Janitors Day, however, has been low-key. Early in the morning, organizers hung signs reading baltimore janitors on strike from the Charles Center Skywalk. At noon, a small delegation marched into the Inner Harbor Hyatt to deliver a welcome basket to executives of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), in town for their annual convention. It was a didactic gift basket, offering symbols of janitorial life: bologna and bread, symbolizing the challenge of feeding families on low pay; aspirin, symbolizing the lack of health coverage; peanuts, symbolizing the wage structure. (You know, peanuts.) The BOMA leaders, surprised over lunch, accepted the basket with equanimity--helpfully pointing out their president for delivery purposes--and calmly listened to the group's prepared statement.

But out on the plaza, the janitors are not mollified. Most of them are making between $5.15--minimum wage--and $6 an hour, with no benefits. The focus of their ire is the 100 E. Pratt St. building, which is owned by Boston Properties Inc. "Boston Properties for us is the building owner that's sort of holding things back," Naranjo says. Though Boston Properties' cleaning contractors in other cities have accepted SEIU's organizing efforts, its Baltimore contractor, Red Coats Inc., has refused to recognize the union's organizing bid.

As latecomers straggle in--most of the janitors are just getting off their day jobs; many work two--the crowd grows to about 100. The late afternoon is both glaring and overcast, unable to decide whether to rain or not, as the workers line up behind the SEIU banner and head down Charles Street, keeping to the sidewalk. Organizer Jaime Contreras, on the bullhorn, leads the standard chants: what-do-we-want and no-justice-no-peace and the rest. The Latin American delegation answers the English cheers in Spanish. A small boy marches in front, drumming on a plastic bucket.

The march heads south along the east side of Charles Center, turns left at Pratt Street, then heads up St. Paul, advancing on the west doors of 100 E. Pratt. Suddenly, a few marchers dart forward and fling open the doors, and the procession tumbles into the building lobby. The first ones through are skipping with excitement, waving their arms and signs. The racket of bodies in motion echoes off the polished stone floor and walls.

Security guards come sprinting to intercept them, clutching cell phones to their ears at a dead run. They scuffle with the lead protesters as the marchers keep pouring in; Contreras and a shaven-headed guard grapple and whirl like dance partners. The yelling and clattering and drumming reverberates at stunning volume, painful volume, as loud as a stadium speaker stack or a diesel locomotive. The air is throbbing. A guard and a protester, each restrained by his fellows, are clawing toward each other, screaming; neither can be heard above the commotion.

The marchers plop down on the floor, still waving and drumming. The noise doesn't lessen. The guards fall back and wave them forward; the marchers rise and advance, veering to the right, past the elevator banks and a few wide-eyed bystanders, out onto the Pratt Street side of the building and into the open air. Still bouncing giddily, they settle into a picket line, circulating on the sidewalk.

"Wow!" exclaims Angela Thornton, one of 100 E. Pratt's janitors. "It's really a blast for us to be part of an organization to stand for something."

As the picket line circles, two city cops arrive. Both have short-cropped hair. The smaller one has his espantoon out; the beefier one makes a show of pulling on a pair of very short, very tight black gloves. They confer with the security guards, then take Contreras aside. He keeps one eye on the picketers as he talks with the police. "No justice . . . !" they yell. The cop holds out his gloved hand. "No peace," Contreras says, looking past the officer, handing over his ID.

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