“There is so much to do,” he said through an interpreter. “We have to rush.”
Ramirez is one of 12,000 office cleaners in Washington, Maryland and Virginia who are threatening to strike when their contract expires at midnight Oct. 15. At stake are wage increases and health insurance.
The cleaning companies, represented by the Washington Service Contractors Association, say they are rebuffing union demands because they have been caught short by the still-floundering economy. The current wages and benefits “reflected the robust economy that existed when the 2007 agreement was signed,” the association said a statement. Since then, the companies, and the building owners and managers who hire them, have “been under intense pressure to hold down costs.” They are asking to keep the contract as is, at least for the first year.
But the cleaners’ union points out that the building owners who pay their wages are having their best year since the recession hit. This is especially true in Washington, which has one of the strongest commercial real estate markets in the nation. The union is asking for wage increases, fewer staffing cuts and health-care benefits for more workers. Only about a third of the office cleaners in the area are full time and receive health benefits, according to the union.
The contract talks are taking place amid a growing public debate over income inequality that has fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement. Labor unions, in throwing their support behind the protests, raise the question: In an economy in which corporations and the wealthy are bouncing back faster than everyone else, will people at the bottom of the economic ladder get to share the benefits of the recovery with those at the top?
Almost all of the office cleaners in Washington have been represented by 32BJ, a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, since the late 1990s, following the union’s Janitors for Justice campaign. It has gone on strike before. One 1996 strike lasted six months.
A union-backed rally in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor last week, meant to highlight the cleaners’ contract dispute, looked like a scene from a documentary that could be called “The Recovery That Wasn’t.”
As members of a thin Occupy Baltimore encampment folded blankets and engaged in other housekeeping, a couple of hundred union members clad in matching purple T-shirts swarmed the opposite side of the square. There were speeches, noisemakers and signs that read, “This isn’t class warfare, it’s class self-defense,” and, “Eat the Rich. They’re Gluten Free.”