Union janitors who clean nearly half the commercial office buildings in the District say they are prepared to strike at midnight tonight unless an agreement is reached on a new contract boosting wages to the federal poverty level and providing health care benefits for the largely Latino work force.
"We're not real hopeful," said Mary Anne Hohenstein, of Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union.
The union has begun demonstrations against nonunion cleaning contractors whose employees it is trying to organize. Union officials said they plan a series of escalating, disruptive demonstrations at National Airport this week.
Contract negotiations between Local 82 and individual cleaning contractors were recessed during the weekend. Union officials said "three or four" of the city's biggest cleaning contractors were scheduled to return to the bargaining table as a group tonight.
Hohenstein said the union spent the weekend preparing its members for a possible strike. In past disputes with building owners, the union has had sit-ins, blocked building entrances and stopped rush-hour traffic to draw attention to its cause.
Bill Ragen, national organizing director of the union's Justice for Janitors campaign, said last week that the union would do "anything and everything we can think of" to make a strike succeed.
The union is seeking to create a single, citywide master contract for all of its members rather than the current series of individual agreements it won in 1993 negotiations. If at least 60 percent of the contractors agree to a single contract, union officials said, that would persuade building owners to go along with paying higher wages and some benefits.
The union has similar agreements in other major cities, including New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
Representatives of several major building owners have been considering intervening in the negotiations to try to avert a walkout. The union hopes that the building owners will pressure contractors to agree to a citywide contract. Union officials said they had seen no sign that the owners were putting pressure on the cleaning contractors.
The union is seeking a wage of $ 7.48 an hour -- the poverty level for a family of four -- plus some form of family health benefits for its 1,700 members in the commercial cleaning unit. Full-time union janitors now make $ 6.90 an hour and receive some individual health coverage. Part-time janitors make $ 6.20 an hour and no health benefits. All but 200 members work part time.