The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. mayor joins janitors in rush-hour march through downtown Washington

Scores of janitors marched during rush hour near McPherson Square to protest stalled contract negotiations. The workers may strike if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 15. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A wave of purple flooded streets in downtown Washington on Tuesday as unionized janitors and building workers sang, shouted and rattled homemade maracas while they pressed through idling cars and buses during the afternoon rush hour.

Hundreds of workers and supporters had gathered in McPherson Square to demand a new labor contract and fair wages for thousands of janitors in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

They were ushered into the street by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who, with a megaphone in hand, told the crowd that the District stands by its workers.

“Please understand that our city cannot move forward without the people that help to make our office buildings work,” the mayor said. “We see you every day, and I want you to know that we’re right there beside you. Sí, se puede!”

The crowd took up the chant.

“Sí, se puede,” they shouted; the phrase means “Yes, we can.”

A labor contract that covers more than 11,000 Washington-area cleaners with the Service Employees International Union is set to expire Oct. 15. Laborers have threatened to strike if a new agreement cannot be reached.

In Loudoun County, Va., janitors are bargaining for their first labor contract. Negotiations with the Washington Service Contractors Association began Sept. 15.

“We will not go backward,” said Kyle Bragg, president of the SEIU’s Local 32BJ. “We will defend our standards. We will win for workers here in D.C. and across the East Coast.”

On Tuesday, Bowser was joined by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who each took a turn addressing the crowd.

Organizers said the city leaders’ presence sends a message to the workers — and employers — that the District values the workers and stands behind their pursuit of strong labor protections and wages of at least $15 an hour.

“It shows workers that they have the support of the city,” SEIU spokeswoman Julie Karant said. “It shows the property owners that this is an issue important to everybody, and it shows cleaners that they’re not alone in this and they have powerful people on their side.”

Janitors are often affected by hot-button issues plaguing both the District and the nation as a whole, organizers said.

They are low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet in an expensive city with the highest rate of gentrification in the country. Many are also immigrants, allowed to live and work in the United States under the temporary protected status program, which is set to expire in 2020.

As the demonstrators passed the White House on Tuesday, organizers paused to call out President Trump by name.

“Hey Trump,” Jaime Contreras, vice president of the local, said into a megaphone. “Shame on you!”

Contreras said later that the bulk of building maintenance staff in the Washington area is made up of men and women who immigrated from countries in Central America.

“These are immigrant workers,” he said. “These are human beings — not animals, which is basically how the Trump administration characterizes immigrants in this country.”

Many also work more than one job to “keep up with the rising cost of living in D.C.,” SEIU officials wrote in a news release.

Nationwide, the union has been pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for its workers. In the D.C. area, those who work part time make $12.10 an hour, while those who work full time earn an hourly rate of $16.10, according to the SEIU.

In his address to the crowd, Mendelson ticked off pro-labor legislation signed into law in the District, including a $15 minimum wage and a bill that requires certain building workers to be given no fewer than 30 hours of work per week.

“We want everybody to be treated fairly,” Bowser said in an interview. “Our city is prospering, and we think that they should share in that prosperity. So I’m hoping they can come to an agreement real soon.”

The demonstration — the third in about 10 days to converge on D.C. streets during rush hour — was planned during the evening commute because most janitors cannot afford to take time out of their workdays to demonstrate, organizers said.

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It came hours after a group of workers voted to strike if a labor contract was not reached by Oct. 15.

“A lot of people here have to work two jobs to be able to support their families — here and our families in other countries,” said building worker Maylin Portillo, 20, who sits on the bargaining committee. “We want to be able to make a living wage and have health care, vacation, protections from sexual harassment. That’s why we need this contract.”

After several speeches, the group exited the park, chanting, “32BJ, we don’t play!”

The protesters marched down K Street to Connecticut Avenue NW, then turned back toward McPherson Square via I Street NW. D.C. police, who closed off streets to accommodate the demonstration, issued a permit for the march.

Organizers hope the rally will put pressure on employers to come to an agreement with workers.

“The economic development around the commercial real estate boom means there is more than enough wealth to ensure these workers are provided their fair share of the profits they help create,” Contreras said in a statement. “This contract will prove whether the region’s prosperity will ever trickle down to move low-wage workers into the middle class.”

The government might ask activists to repay the costs of securing protests. Experts say it could price them out.

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