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Mass celebrates workers’ rights, dignity

Service held in solidarity with MBTA janitors

The Very Rev. James A. Flavin, episcopal vicar of the archdiocese’s central region, blessed  tools of labor. The Mass was celebrated with 100 union organizers, janitors, and others.

Jeremy Fox For The Boston Globe

The Very Rev. James A. Flavin, episcopal vicar of the archdiocese’s central region, blessed tools of labor. The Mass was celebrated with 100 union organizers, janitors, and others.

A Catholic priest called Saturday for better pay and increased respect for hard work, likening the struggles of immigrant laborers to those of the Holy Family, at a Mass held in solidarity with MBTA janitors who had faced planned Labor Day layoffs.

“Our story, the Christian story, begins with a homeless family forced to immigrate to a foreign land, fearful of those who controlled the wealth of their nation,” said the Very Rev. James A. Flavin, episcopal vicar of the archdiocese’s central region, in his homily. “They wanted a better life for their son and endured trials and hardships, much like we do today.”

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Flavin celebrated Saturday’s bilingual Mass for the Sanctification of Human Labor before about 100 union organizers, elected officials, airport contract workers, janitors, and their families, praising the dignity of work and blessing a broom, mop, and bucket — a janitor’s humble tools.

SJ Services and ABM, cleaning contractors for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, had been set to lay off as many as 92 workers on Sept. 1 — Labor Day — under the terms of five-year performance-based contracts that would allow them to reduce staffing in September, as the second contract year begins.

The contractors agreed last week to delay layoffs at the state’s request, as transportation officials continue talks with Service Employees International Union 32BJ, the union representing the janitors.

In his impassioned and far-reaching sermon at the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Voyage in the South Boston Seaport, a church built by laborers from the International Longshoremen’s Association, Flavin decried “a system that devalues the dignity of workers.”

Citing Pope Francis’s address to workers last autumn calling for an economic system that places people, not money, at its center, he said the time has come for an increased minimum wage.

“Our faith teaches us that human work has intrinsic dignity and that wages honor that dignity,” he said. “The current federal minimum falls short of a just wage because it fails to provide resources for individuals to care for themselves or to sustain a family.”

Roxana Rivera, district leader for the janitors’ union, said forestalling layoffs granted janitors a temporary but important reprieve.

“The industry of contracted janitors is very volatile, so the opportunity to give even a few more months of security to families is a big deal for us,” she said.

Rivera said the cleaning contractors are in a race to be the lowest bidder that will ultimately leave them shortstaffed and put workers at risk, trying to do too much work in too many MBTA stations with too little time, unless it is stopped.

An MBTA spokesman said Rivera’s concerns were “utter nonsense.”

“Growing numbers of transit systems in the US are employing the use of performance-based contracts for cleaning stations, resulting in a better quality of service,” said Joe Pesaturo, the spokesman, in an e-mail. “The MBTA owes it to fare payers and taxpayers to implement a plan under which cleaning services are provided in the most cost-effective manner possible.”

Jose Vasquez, 34, said he works for SJ Services and was slated to keep his job after the proposed layoffs, but his responsibilities would have increased from two MBTA stations to five.

“It’s a lot more work,” Vasquez said in Spanish through a translator.

Inmer Flores, 31, said he is a 14-year ABM employee and did not know whether he and his father, who has worked for the contractor since 1998, would have lost their jobs.

“It was scary because first of all . . . we weren’t going to be able to support our families,” the Everett resident said. “But also it was going to impact the T riders because it wouldn’t be clean; it wouldn’t be safe; it wouldn’t be healthy.”

Flores said the Mass was a chance to express his gratitude.

“I’m thankful to God, because he blessed us in this fight, and that’s why we’re here today,” he said.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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