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Roxana Rivera, the head of 32BJ Service Employees International Union District 615, had an exceptionally busy fall. In one six-week period, she negotiated three new contracts raising janitors’ wages to between $20 and $25 an hour, bringing the number of local custodians who won pay raises this year to 15,000. In all, District 615 represents 18,000 janitors, security guards, and trade workers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, and the union is working to organize hundreds more contractors at Logan Airport. Rivera spoke to the Globe’s Katie Johnston about her 21-year career with SEIU, during which she has organized hunger strikes and a 150-mile, 10-day pilgrimage to call attention to the plight of janitorial workers.
1. The janitors who clean downtown office buildings and classrooms at Tufts, Harvard, and MIT are among the highest-paid custodians in the country, thanks to the work of the union that became 32BJ. Momentum started building in 2002, when members of what Rivera refers to as an “invisible workforce” — people making, on average, $9 an hour — went on strike for 30 days. Since then, contract by contract, the workers have been getting higher pay and more protections. But it always starts with a fight to be recognized, and believed, Rivera said.
“First, employers will just ignore workers, and then they’re like, ‘Well, you’re lying.’ Then slowly we build the workers’ stories and it builds credibility enough for us to be taken seriously, and then we’re able to win.”
2. Rivera was born and raised in what is now Silicon Valley, the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador. Her father, a machinist, and her mother, a waitress, didn’t have union benefits such as health care — they paid all their medical bills out of pocket. Eventually.
“I remember when my brother got appendicitis, [my father] had to go to his boss and ask him for money to pay for the operation. My mother, because of the secondhand smoking at restaurants, she basically got bronchitis and pneumonia. . . . She was in the ICU, and my parents paid that bill over a number of years after. I think it took them 10 years to pay that bill.”
3. Rivera dropped out of San Jose State University in 1994 a semester before graduating to join a campaign against Proposition 187, which aimed to make undocumented workers ineligible for public benefits. Around the same time, a group of Spanish-speaking parents at a school where Rivera tutored asked for her help to stop police from rounding up day laborers. Rivera went with the parents to city hall in Mountain View to talk to officials about the issue and was shocked by the mayor’s response.
“She just said on the mike, ‘I’ve never seen so many brown faces in all my life.’ Those were moments that kind of changed me . . . realizing that I was going to have to fight for the type of community I wanted to be living in.”
4. Rivera worked with a lot of community groups in the run-up to a major Los Angeles janitors strike in 2000 and found herself pleading with religious leaders to support the many low-wage Latino workers in their parishes.
“I remember going to priests and saying, ‘You have to do more than baptisms and first communions. Their employer turns their back on them; you can’t have the church turning their back on them, too.’ ”
5. With Donald Trump’s administration poised to take over in January, Rivera says she is gearing up to fight even harder for workers’ rights. Trump’s labor secretary pick, Andrew Puzder, has voiced opposition to raising the minimum wage and expanding overtime pay, and labor leaders fear Trump will appoint National Labor Relations Board members who could make it harder for workers to organize.
“We’re going to have to do the things that we have been doing but on a bigger scale. Our first conversations with workers may have to be about striking from the jump-start because we’re not going to have any other way to continue to improve the lives of working people.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.