Hundreds of union workers marched from Boston Common to Copley Square Monday afternoon in a Labor Day rally supporting efforts to win 14,000 New England janitors full-time jobs — and benefits such as health insurance — when their contract expires at the end of the month.
“I’m here today because I’m proud of what I’m doing for this country and for my family,” said Silvia Clarke, who lives in Lowell and sits on the bargaining committee for the union. “We deserve a better life for all of us. When we are here today, we are saying to our companies that we want more because we deserve more. We do the job; they get the money.”
Clarke works part time as a janitor, cleaning an office building in Lowell. In four-hour shifts, she is expected to clean 160 offices, plus bathrooms, conference rooms, and eating areas, by herself, she said.
“They increase what we have to clean, but they don’t give us more hours,” she said. “We go home like a zombie.”
Because she is not allowed to pick up more hours to bump her over into full-time status, Clarke does not qualify for health insurance. She supports two of her adult children, who live with her. Her son and son-in-law have lost their jobs.
‘We think that the janitors’ fight represents the fight of all service workers across the US economy.’
“We want people to know that we know we deserve a better life,” she said. “It’s not only us alone. All workers in the United States deserve a better wage and a better life.”
Service Employees International Union Local 615, which organized the march, represents 18,000 workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. The union is in the process of negotiating a new contract with contractors for 14,000 janitors.
Currently, said local union president Rocio Saenz, about two-thirds of those janitors work part time, making as little as $56 a day and often cobbling together a living out of two or three jobs.
The union hopes to win a commitment from contractors to provide opportunities for full-time work and the benefits that go along with full-time employment.
“We think that the janitors’ fight represents the fight of all service workers across the US economy, where people cannot feed their families and make ends meet on one part-time low-wage job,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU, said in an interview before the march.
“It’s a basic promise, we think, in the American economy, that if you work hard for a living, you can do better for yourselves and your family, and expect to leave the world better for the next generation. That promise, in our minds, has been broken.”
About 750 people turned out for the march.
Chanting “Sí se puede” — a rallying cry that means “Yes we can” in Spanish — and carrying purple flags and homemade banners, they were joined by Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, congressional candidate Joseph Kennedy III, and other politicians who threw their support to the workers’ fight. “Here we are on Labor Day,” said Murray, standing on the bandstand on Boston Common. “You epitomize the labor movement. You are the strength of the labor movement. We are your partners.”
For the janitors, full-time employment would mean stability, a chance to achieve a middle-class existence.
“My dream is to buy a home one day,” part-time janitor Filipa Ramos, 61, of Roxbury, said through a translator. “With full time, I would maybe be able to accomplish that. That’s a dream that almost all cleaning workers have.”