Business & Tech

MIT pay raise shows janitors’ union clout

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

MIT’s campus.

Under a new contract approved Thursday, janitors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will soon make more than $49,000 a year, nearly as much as low-level lecturers at the school earn.

The janitors will be among the highest paid custodians in the country, evidence of the steady gains made since their union’s Justice for Janitors movement was launched 30 years ago.

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The new contract will bump up janitors’ pay to $23.67 an hour over the course of three years, according to the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents the workers.

Lecturers at MIT make less than $56,000 a year on average, according to the salary website glassdoor.com.

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Janitors started rallying for higher pay in the mid-1980s as part of an SEIU campaign often compared to today’s Fight for $15 actions. Union janitors who took to the streets of Los Angeles in 1990 were beaten by baton-wielding police officers, spurring favorable contract negotiations and sparking a turning point in the movement.

In 2002, Boston janitors went on strike for three weeks, bringing low-wage workers out of the shadows and launching a local labor movement, said Russ Davis, executive director of the workers’ advocacy group Massachusetts Jobs With Justice.

“They clean the buildings at night,” Davis said. “They were very much this hidden workforce that no one knew about.”

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Today, SEIU 32BJ represents about 16,000 janitors in the Boston area, approximately 90 percent of the total custodian workforce, according to the SEIU, a rate similar to that in Hartford and Washington D.C., and slightly below that in New York and Pittsburgh.

In Greater Boston, union janitors working for more than 50 contractors make between $17 and $25 an hour, with benefits. The mean hourly wage of janitors and cleaners in Massachusetts, not including maids and housekeepers, is $15.87 an hour, the highest rate in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national mean is $12.59 an hour.

Nonunion janitors typically earn close to minimum wage, according to SEIU.

Business groups argue that unions drive up costs for companies and customers, make it difficult to fire poor performers, and force workers into one-size-fits-all contracts. Unions like the SEIU are looking not to benefit workers, they say, but to boost their membership and line their own pockets.

Janitors, like fast-food workers, are an “attractive labor force” for unions seeking to expand because they often have few rights and low pay, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester. “They can make tremendous appeals to them by saying, ‘You have nothing, we’ll give you something,’ ” he said.

Custodians have had some high-profile champions over the years. Ben Affleck’s father was a janitor at Harvard University, and the star of his and Matt Damon’s 1997 film “Good Will Hunting” was a janitor at MIT. The pair attended a rally on the Harvard campus in 2000 to denounce the low pay of the school’s blue-collar workers.

In all, 650 custodians, electricians, groundskeepers, security guards, and other service workers at MIT will get a 9 percent raise over the course of a three-year contract. The skilled trade workers in the union, including electricians and plumbers, will get to $40.33 an hour by 2019.

MIT did not respond to requests for comment on the contract.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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