On Thursday, June 15, I gathered on a pedestrian bridge at an iconic building in downtown Hartford with some staff and members from Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which I am proud to lead in Connecticut. We planned to take a few photos with a banner to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of Justice for Janitors Day, a simple gesture amplified on Thursday by myriad events in Connecticut and across the country. Many of the commemorations were small, a few gigantic, including a march through Manhattan’s Bryant Park featuring two thousand 32BJ members, all in honor of a movement that started the day a march was stopped.
Thirty-three years ago, most janitors had little to celebrate. Contractors had come to dominate office cleaning throughout the Reagan ´80s, winning bids from building owners by keeping their workers’ wages low and benefits minimal. In Los Angeles, a group of Latino janitors decided they’d had enough, and on June 15, 1990, they marched peacefully through Century City until police stopped them with batons flailing. The brutality of that day turned the tide in the janitors’ struggle. From California to Connecticut, labor activists worked with janitors to build political support that challenged racist power structures while also organizing across isolated, far-flung worksites to forge market-wide master agreements with the contractors.
Over the next three decades, the lives of unionized janitors steadily improved, which in turn helped unions like 32BJ grow and diversify. Today, our East Coast union represents 175,000 members in numerous occupations across a dozen states, including some 4,500 members living and working in Connecticut.
Even so, the larger world reminds us constantly that we cannot rest. As we took photos on Thursday, officials from the office building, unofficially known as the Phoenix or Boat building, came out to claim we were on private property, while countless pedestrians crossed the bridge without a care (we complied by moving to the other side of the bridge, no worse for wear).
As it so happens, the building’s owner, the Nassau Financial Group, switched to a non-union cleaning contractor during the height of the pandemic – and the pandemic, as we all know, changed everything. In the wake of that global calamity, owners of downtown buildings have seen a drop in tenancy rates that will present a challenge over the coming months as bargaining opens on union contracts that first went into effect before the pandemic. These agreements cover 70,000 cleaners represented by 32BJ across the East Coast, including two agreements set to expire on January 1 for thousands of janitors across Connecticut. To win a wage increase that will keep up with inflation, and to protect our membership’s futures in a changing economy, we have to be ready to fight.
It will not be easy, but neither was June 15, 1990, nor for that matter was the COVID-19 pandemic. The LA police broke bones; the pandemic temporarily took a large percentage of our members’ jobs, and over 200 of their lives. Yet in these tragedies, we also found hidden strengths. First, we built a movement; then, we proved that our work is essential no matter the business climate. Long before the vaccines arrived, our members helped institutions stay open that simply could not close, from factories with defense department contracts to hospital emergency rooms.
Consider the work performed by Darlyng Lopez. While most of us were learning to work from home, Darlyng was bracing herself to enter rooms with COVID patients at UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington. Before COVID, it took Darlying ten minutes to sanitize a room. During COVID, she dedicated forty-five, attending to everything from computer cables to window curtains. She was so thorough that hospital staff came to request her. When asked about that time, she says, “I’m a person who likes helping others.”
For all the hard work and anxiety she endured, Darlyng only received a temporary pay increase of one dollar more per hour, before being knocked back down a few months later to her regular wage, just a few bucks above minimum. She knows she will have to fight for the recognition she deserves. She also knows that she and thousands of other 32BJ members have already demonstrated over the past three years that Connecticut cannot fully function without them. No matter what the wealthy contractors and building owners might say, our members know this indisputable truth, and we won’t let the bosses forget it. For the next chapter in our story, watch this space, or a bridge near you.
Palache is Vice President of 32BJ SEIU