Janitors gearing up for a fight

By Molly Tillman

CHICAGO--Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 held a rally at the landmark Chicago Theatre March 1, followed by a march down corporate-dominated LaSalle Street, to prepare its 15,000 janitorial members in the Chicago area for a new contract battle.

The current contract, negotiated with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Chicago, is set to expire April 5.

Three thousand union members and their families filled most of the seats in the ornate auditorium, many wearing translation headsets. Chicago-based SEIU Local 1 is a particularly multiracial and multinational bargaining unit, with Black, white and Latino members who speak English, Spanish, Polish and Serbo-Croatian.

Union officials and rank-and-file speakers on stage highlighted the need for a fair contract as part of a broader struggle for justice for American workers. While praising President Barack Obama unequivocally for being a friend of labor, and celebrating the role Local 1 played in helping to elect him, speakers criticized the current stimulus plan for favoring corporate bailouts over spending on social programs.

"Don't give the money to those guys who've been screwing us--give it to us, the workers," admonished SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff. "We've lived up to our part. We've worked hard."

Rank-and-file janitors, who earn an average of $23,400 per year and work in a variety of establishments--from downtown office buildings to Chicago Public Schools--offered a revealing perspective on the effects of the recession.

A Polish woman who cleans offices at Bank of America's local headquarters chastised her employer for receiving $25 billion in stimulus money while announcing layoffs. As the sole breadwinner in her family--and with a sick husband--she feared what would happen if she lost her job and health benefits.

A janitor at a South Side elementary school worried about what effect the loss of jobs at 16 public schools set for closure would have on the African American community, where jobs are already scarce. "Jobs like ours keep the community going," he declared. He also pointed out that cuts in janitorial services would disproportionately affect poor schools, where kids have as much right to clean facilities as rich kids.

Balanoff also made appeals for support from unionists in other cities. "If we can win a strong contract here, we can bargain for a strong contract in Cleveland and Milwaukee." Also in this vein were solidarity greetings from Local 1 members in Houston, who in 2006 had staged a month-long strike and won.

While potential strategies were not discussed, speakers alluded to strikes and civil disobedience. A slide presentation of labor and civil rights heroes of the various ethnic groups represented--Lech Walesa, Rosa Parks and César Chávez--emphasized the ways in which smaller struggles could become broader social upheavals, and that activists have often had to break the law to win justice.

The presentation also included a narrative of the recent factory occupation at Republic Windows & Doors. Rigoberto, a leader of that occupation and son of a Local 1 janitor, made an implicit pitch to the crowd to consider such tactics themselves. "People said we couldn't win, but I said, 'How do you know if you haven't tried?'" he said. "If we could do that, imagine what you could do if you stick together."

Officials outlined the key bargaining issues as protection of jobs, health care benefits and pensions, and demands for sick days and fair wages. Specifics about the current contract or demands the union would bring to the table, however, were nowhere to be seen.

Nevertheless, the mood set by the militant talk, along with successful precedents at Republic and by the Chicago Teachers Union's partial reversal of planned school closings, could set the stage for a big fight.