Janitors take fight to Wall Street

The Service Employees International Union is taking Washington's Justice for Janitors campaign to Wall Street this week in an effort to enlist pension fund support for the effort to win union representation for the men and women who clean downtown office buildings.

Ironically, the effort comes as the union and major commercial building owners in the District appear on the brink of an agreement to expand union representation to approximately 70 percent of the downtown market. The union currently represents 42 percent of the janitors in the downtown market.

Representatives of the union, led by Bill Ragen, who heads the janitors' organizing campaign, will meet with a delegation from the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church in an effort to intervene with Security Capital Group to pressure CarrAmerica Realty to hire union cleaning contractors for its downtown buildings. Security Capital Group, through its Luxembourg subsidiary, Security Capital U.S. Realty, owns 40 percent of CarrAmerica Realty and has four members on CarrAmerica's board of directors.

At least that was the agenda when the union first approached the church group nearly a year and a half ago and the SEIU and CarrAmerica were still on a war footing with each other. It was the union's attempts to pressure CarrAmerica a few years ago that led to the blocking of bridges into Washington during the morning rush hour and noisy demonstrations at D.C. Council meetings and sit-ins at CarrAmerica headquarters.

But last May, Andrew Stern, the new national president of the SEIU, declared a unilateral cease-fire, ordering an end to the militant, 10-year organizing tactics and calling for cooperation rather than confrontation. Stern said the militancy had created a degree of polarization that served neither side well.

Since then, Stern has taken an active role in negotiations with the city's commercial building owners and both sides agree that major progress has been made toward reaching an agreement that will clear the way for unionization of the janitors.

As a result, the talks scheduled for Wednesday in New York with the church pension officials have taken on a different tone. Ragen acknowledges that "all is going well" in the talks with the D.C. building owners, including CarrAmerica. He said the letter requesting the meeting with the pension fund reflects where things stood several months ago. The meeting this week, he said, reflects the union's new efforts to line up pension funds in support of labor causes, not just the situation in the District.

Ragen said the union hopes to convince the church fund to adopt a policy that will consider labor issues when making investment decisions.

Amy Domini, the newly elected chairman of the church funds committee on social investing, said the union had asked for the meeting more than a year ago, but that it took that long for her to get authorization to meet with them. She said the meeting was called to hear what the union has to say. "You don't stonewall activists that bring in issues," Domini said.

CarrAmerica, in the meantime, said it wasn't sure just what was going on, citing the progress being made at the negotiating table with the union. CarrAmerica spokeswoman Karen Widmayer said the company did not learn about the meeting until it received a call from a reporter from a church publication.
"We're surprised and a little perplexed," Widmayer said. She said the approach the union was taking was very reminiscent of the tactics of the past.
Widmayer said CarrAmerica was preparing a package of "accurate information" to send to the church pension fund.

Washington Post
Publication Date: 
November 17, 1997