Lessons learned from the janitors strike

Issue January 2003 By Krista Zanin

Was it a momentous turning point in the lives of an underpaid labor class just learning the power of organizing?

Or did the chaotic bargaining sessions make it impossible for management to settle a contract before a strike was called?

It depends on which side of the table you sat.

Attorneys representing a union for Boston-area janitors as well as cleaning contractors gathered recently at the MBA for a roundtable discussion on what led up to the historic Boston Janitors Strike. Lawyers on both sides of the debate, as well as an attorney with Boston Police Legal Advisors, shed light on some of the issues that went on behind the scenes.

The janitors' strike, which started Sept. 30, 2002, targeted nearly 100 high profile buildings in the Boston area. It followed a summer of failed negotiations between Service Employees International Union Local 254 - which represented more than 10,000 janitors - and cleaning contractors, including Janitronics and Unicco.

The strike concluded three weeks later following colorful and loud demonstrations on city streets and a swell of support among politicians and the public urging better wages for janitors.

Though the strike began in September, contract talks actually began in June in the basement auditorium of Fisher College.

Ira Sills, an attorney with Segal Roitman & Coleman of Boston, represented the janitors' Local 254. He called the events that led up to the strike a historic effort to organize a group of workers for the first time.

"What management perceived as a circus-like environment, was really for the first time an empowerment process for workers to be involved in the formation of what their contract was going to be," Sills said.

Sills said several events led up to the strike, including a national movement called Justice for Janitors. The janitors' union also was emerging from strife. And protests and labor negotiations for janitors months prior at Harvard University and Tufts University also set the stage for the Boston strike, as did the impact of September 11 terrorist attacks on the large class of immigrant workers, he said.

"The labor dispute represented, from the union perspective, a struggle to make visible workers in a union perceived invisible … and two to improve the conditions (for the workers)," said Sills.

Still, Sills acknowledged that the months leading up to the strike, when both sides first sat down to negotiate a contract, were different than most labor negotiations.

And according to the cleaning contractors' attorneys, the strike could have been averted months earlier had negotiations proceeded in a more typical fashion. They were mired by the workers' insistence on packing the meetings with people.

While most contract negotiations take place between small groups, the attorneys said, more than 100 workers gathered for these sessions, making it difficult to focus on the issues and resolve a contract.

To the dismay of the contractors' attorneys, the workers even called rabbis and clerics to invoke prayers at the beginning of one of the first sessions.

"The first indication something was really different was when the union wanted a priest to give some sort of invocation or prayer," said Laura E. Schneider, attorney with Hale & Dorr, who represented Janitronics.

The union tried other playbook tactics to try pressuring management, said Unicco attorney Trent Sevene.

The summer rounds of talks were peppered with people standing and reading testimonials, often about things that had nothing to do with bargaining, Schneider said.

The talk of a strike also circled before bargaining began, she said.

The caustic climate during the summer-long bargaining sessions nearly prompted the contractors' attorneys to charge the union with bad faith negotiating. But they decided against it, Schneider said.

"Were we to bring a bargaining charge it wouldn't advance the ball at all," she said.

"We were afraid if we brought a charge, we'd be accused of delaying," Sevene added.

One lesson learned from the debate, Sevene said, is that he believes the same agreement reached after the strike could have been settled long before had there been fewer people debating the contract.

"Regrettably, there was very little actual bargaining that took place at first during the first three months," Sevene said. "…What we encountered was more of a public-relations struggle, and I think in the end … the settlement out there could have been reached through traditional collective bargaining."

But union attorney Indira Talwani said a number of union members were active in the negotiations because they wanted to form and understand the contract. They met for hours after sessions to talk about proposals.

But Schneider said what was frustrating was that 100 to 200 people were making decisions on behalf of 10,000 workers, many of whom told supervisors they were only interested in higher wages.

But Talwani said workers were reporting that supervisors were threatening to fire janitors for their involvement in the movement.

Eventually both sides settled on a contract that was ratified Nov. 9 by approximately 600 workers in the 10,000-member union. The result was an increase in wages over the five years of the contract and a pledge to insure 1,000 workers by 2005, Sills said

In the end, Sevene said management was "elated" with the resulting contract. "We were the underdogs," Sevene said.

Attorneys also agreed the Democratic National Convention played a significant part in settling the strike as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was concerned the strike could nix the city's ability to land the convention.