The union working on a contract for 13,000 Boston-area janitors scored a victory Thursday when the cleaning companies agreed to drop a controversial proposal the union argued would have excluded workers in many smaller buildings from negotiated wages and benefits.
The Maintenance Contractors of New England wanted janitors who clean office buildings of 100,000 square feet or less to not be included in the new contract. The companies said the provision would have only applied to new buildings and would allow them to be more competitive when bidding against nonunion contractors.
But the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ said it would have included existing properties and would have affected about 1,000 janitors.
Either way, the contractors group, which represents 20 of the largest building service companies in the area, agreed to drop the measure.
"It wasn't the hill to die on," said Matt Ellis, a spokesman for the contractors. "Good progress is being made in general. We feel right now we're very close as we head into the last day here. There should be no talk of a strike."
Union officials said there was no way they ever would have agreed to the proposal.
"We cannot leave people behind. That's something we don't do," union spokesman Eugenio Villasante said. "We believe it's not something that is fair for the workers who clean small buildings and work hard in the same way that workers who work in larger buildings work hard as well."
The negotiations are fast approaching a deadline at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, as the contract expires. The janitors have voted to authorize a strike if a contract isn't settled. The approximately 2,000 office buildings that would be affected include those housing Biogen, Liberty Mutual, the Federal Reserve, Vertex, The Boston Globe, and institutions including Northeastern, Wentworth, Simmons, and New England Conservatory.
Bargaining experts said it is not uncommon in negotiations for one party to float a proposal that is a nonstarter for the other side — meaning they have no interest in negotiating it to a more palatable form. The tactic is often deployed strategically for a number of reasons and can have mixed results.
"It works in cases where workers aren't in a strong bargaining position, either because the union is weak or there isn't a strong economic climate," said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "It's an effort to increase their leverage in other issues."
Alan J. McDonald, senior attorney at McDonald, Lamond, and Canzoneri, which represents labor unions, said demands such as who will be covered under a contract are not a mandatory subject for bargaining in the same way that wages and benefits are.
"One party can make that suggestion, but the other party is not required to address it," said McDonald, whose firm represents about 65 public and private unions in Massachusetts, including the union that represents newsroom employees of The Boston Globe. "Often parties make proposals . . . either to try to scare the other side a little bit or to get the other side to back off from their proposal. It's used with some frequency."
The janitors' union said that the proposal would have affected 25 percent of the buildings its members clean, including some housing the region's best-known companies; for example, one building affected is the corporate headquarters for Biogen on Binney Street in Cambridge.
Ellis said the maintenance contractors have offered higher wages for those janitors who work in Boston's central business district and better health care for all full-time workers. The union wants the companies to broaden that offer to include more janitors, and in particular wants to create more full-time positions. Most of the janitors work part time, some in shifts as short as three hours. The union wants to establish a minimum four-hour shift.