Parking attendants around Boston, many of them from East Africa, say they face third-world conditions performing one of the faceless jobs of a first-world economy: parking cars for office workers and visitors in Boston’s booming downtown.
Paid just a dollar or two above minimum wage, the attendants say they are confined to tiny booths, alternately freezing or sweltering with the weather and enduring long shifts with little or no chance for a bathroom break.
Now, Teamsters Local 25 is working to organize the roughly 1,600 parking workers in Greater Boston, aiming to improve their working conditions and increase union membership.
After two years of effort, the union has contracts with five parking companies in Boston and expects to unionize attendants at the three other major companies in the area, as well as several smaller ones, by next year. Nationwide, the Teamsters have organized about 20,000 parking attendants, including longtime members in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.
The Boston parking workers would be the local’s second-largest group of employees, after UPS drivers. Sean O’Brien, the president of Local 25, said the effort would help diversify the Teamsters’ image beyond the stereotypical “white Irish/Italian truck driver.”
“Growth is germane to our survival as a labor organization,” he said. “The biggest thing we have achieved is respect in the workplace, again without any retribution or retaliation.”
Local 25’s approximately 11,000 members include Stop & Shop drivers, Massachusetts Port Authority workers, construction workers, 911 operators, school administrators, and police officers.
So far, workers have been organized at more than 100 local lots run by Standard Parking, Central Parking, Impark, Propark, and VPNE, locations where workers were the most eager to unionize, according to the Teamsters.
SP+, a Chicago company that owns Standard Parking and Central Parking, which has more than 40 garages and 400 employees in Boston, insists that it provided amenities even before the union organized its workers.
“Company policy always has provided for meal and bathroom breaks (and we’ve endeavored to provide adequate restroom facilities), even before the [collective bargaining agreement] was signed,” a spokesman said in an e-mail.
The Teamsters next expect to sign up attendants from LAZ Parking, which has about 50 lots in Boston.
One 36-year-old LAZ parking attendant, who oversees a small outdoor lot near the waterfront, works alone and said he is not allowed to leave during his eight-hour shift. There is no bathroom on the lot, so he shuts the door of the booth and urinates in one of the plastic bottles he collects from the trash, he said. On a nighttime shift at a different lot, he relieves himself between the cars.
The Somalia native, who has worked in Boston parking lots for 18 years, asked not to be named because he feared losing his job. He said he has no air conditioning in his tiny booth, and in the summer the heat and the smell of garbage are almost unbearable.
“I’m feeling like back home in Africa,” he said. “I’m not feeling like America’s free.”
LAZ did not return calls seeking comment.
The Teamsters also are targeting Pilgrim Parking, which has 36 locations around Boston. Pilgrim said its 250 employees are paid above minimum wage and get benefits such as medical and dental insurance, sick and vacation time, and a 401(k) match.
They also get regular breaks, said Mike Gery, president of Pilgrim Parking.
“I try to do my best by my workers,” said Gery, whose father-in-law started the company in 1964. “It’s hard to survive as a local company unless you take care of your folks.”
The union said that contracts signed so far have increased wages about 3 percent a year, to an average of $12 an hour, frozen health insurance premiums, increased paid sick time and holidays, added a pension plan, and mandated meal and bathroom breaks.
Companies where the workers have organized are also required to provide bathrooms, heat, and air conditioning, hire full-time workers from the ranks of part-timers, and keep a location’s existing union workers when they take over a facility.
To put pressure on the parking companies, Local 25 has contacted the owners of the buildings where the lots are located, it said, warning that if the process does not go smoothly the union would picket at the buildings.
Teamster pension funds provide capital that real estate investment trusts often use to construct buildings, Local 25 noted, and many of the buildings are served by union delivery drivers, laundry workers, and janitors.
“When we’re out there, the dumpsters won’t get picked up because those guys are union drivers,” said Robert Aiguier Jr., the Teamsters’ business agent organizing the parking workers. “UPS drivers won’t deliver packages. The food-service companies won’t bring supplies.”
The Teamsters have generated controversy through the years, including several recent incidents involving Local 25 members. Last year, union workers at Logan Airport were arrested for allegedly taking bribes from cab drivers so the drivers could skip ahead of other cabbies and pick up better fares. In August, members who were picketing the hiring of nonunion drivers at a “Top Chef” TV shoot at a Milton restaurant allegedly slashed tires and yelled slurs at cast members, a charge the Teamsters deny.