Janitors approve contract

More than a decade after it first began blocking District streets and bridges as part of the militant Justice for Janitors organizing campaign, the Service Employees International Union yesterday announced it has reached a contract agreement with companies that clean 70 percent of the city's commercial office buildings.

The five-year agreement with the city's major cleaning contractors ends one of the most bitter chapters in the area's modern labor history. It also marks the first time the SEIU has been able to convert a city cleaning force from nonunion to majority-union since the start of a national janitors campaign in 1987.

Members of SEIU Local 82 approved the new contract yesterday, according to a union spokesman who declined to give a count. The new agreement is expected to nearly double the size of the local membership to about 4,000 by early next year.

Under the new agreement, base wages for full-time janitors will rise over five years from the current $6.50 an hour to $8.50 an hour. Workers also will receive health, retirement and other benefits. In addition, the contract sets up a training fund during the last two years of the agreement to help the mostly immigrant work force learn skills and move on to higher paying jobs.

Pay for part-time workers will rise to $8 an hour by the end of the contract, but with fewer benefits.

The Justice for Janitors campaign has been best known for its dramatic tactics of blocking bridges into the District during rush hour and holding noisy street demonstrations outside nonunion office buildings. When they weren't in the streets, union protesters were inside disrupting government and corporate meetings.

A major target of the campaign was Oliver T. Carr Jr., whose company, CarrAmerica Realty Group, is the city's biggest non-government building owner. The union hung signs and banners all over town demonizing Carr, demonstrated in front of his home, and gathered inside and outside his company's office buildings.

Ironically, it was the union's decision to unilaterally end these public protests a year ago that appears to have persuaded the employers to come to the bargaining table and negotiate.

"For a while we got so overwhelmed with the tactics we were using that we forgot the mission," said SEIU's Andrew L. Stern, who ordered a moratorium on demonstrations shortly after he was elected president of the union. Since then, Stern, who called the last year a "maturing process," has been working closely with contractors and building owners, to reach an agreement.

"We took a big risk," Stern said of the moratorium, "but after talking to lots of owners we concluded there really was a different way to improve working conditions and improve the industry itself. The [risk] has paid off, and we're really pleased."

Newly unionized employers will be given three years to bring their workers up to the full wage level to help cushion the financial impact on tenants in the buildings where the janitors work. The new contract is technically a three-year extension of the agreement the union reached last year with its unionized contractors.

A joint statement issued by the union and 16 cleaning contractors called the new agreement "a historic step forward" that "now puts behind us years of conflict."

Rit Thompson, president of Virginia-based P&R Enterprises, Inc., one of the area's largest nonunion cleaning contractors, hailed the agreement, saying it preserves management's operating rights while raising the standards for janitors in the city.

Thompson said the owners of major buildings in the District have been working "very quietly in the background and encouraged us to proceed" during negotiations with the union. P&R employs about 900 janitors in 50 buildings in the city.

A spokeswoman for CarrAmerica said the company is pleased with how things finally worked out.

"We think the union has been acting in a responsible way by dealing directly with the contractors and the employees involved," said Karen Widmayer. "Obviously, we haven't been involved in the discussions, but we're supportive of the way they have been conducted."

James Fitzpatrick, of Unnico Service Company Inc., a major unionized cleaning contractor in the District, praised Stern for ending the public protests and for the help he gave in negotiations. "We have a very good situation now for all the parties involved," he said. "The agreement takes the economic advantages out of the picture for the [nonunionized] companies, and we can now compete on the quality of service."

The nonunion contractors have agreed to remain neutral and not oppose SEIU's efforts to organize their workers. The com panies have agreed to elections supervised by federal mediators and to what is known as card-check recognition, which allows each worker to vote on the question of union representation.

Jay Hessey, executive director of Local 82, said he does not anticipate any problem signing up nonunion workers, most of whom already have signed union cards as part of earlier organizing efforts.

Under federal labor law, a union can gain recognition as the legal representative for the workers by simply presenting union authorization cards from a majority of the employees.
Hessey said the agreement is expected to provide employment stability for the contractors and should help stabilize their work forces.

P&R's Thompson agreed. "It gives us the ability to attract and keep the most qualified people we have," he said.

For Maria Rivera, 54, who came to the District from Peru eight years ago, the new contract is a path to a better life. Speaking through an interpreter, Rivera said she now works three jobs, two taking care of children and a third working for Unnico as a janitor. She said she hopes that organizing most of the city's janitors "will make it better for all the people who work cleaning buildings."