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T janitors may strike over treatment

Officials, activists call for late-night bus service

Jule Pattison-Gordon
T janitors may strike over treatment
Union members say they are ready to strike Friday if agreements are not reached.

Members of the union representing 300 MBTA janitors told the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that recent staffing changes have harmed workers and that a strike could be forthcoming.

Workers in purple SEIU 32BJ T-shirts filled four rows in Monday’s meeting, with several standing to testify. Janitors later marched from the meeting with cries of “huelga” (strike) and “justicio ahora” (justice now).

Effects felt

At the top of September, the two cleaning firms that serve the T scaled back hours and staffing levels. The change was prompted after the MBTA decided to enforce a 2013 contract and no longer pay the cleaning firms above the level stipulated. The move was presented as a cost-saving measure as the T struggles with its finances, but janitors testified that it has produced a decline in workers’ quality of life and system cleanliness as fewer workers are asked to achieve the same results. The T’s contract does not specify staffing levels; it sets standards for the end results.

Janitors are overburdened and some have had workloads doubled, said Jose Farjado, who works for cleaning firm ABM. He asked the FCMB to intercede with cleaning contractors.

Jorge Rivera, an 11-year MBTA employee, said he lost benefits when his workweek was cut by ten hours. Rivera currently works for S.J. Services, the second cleaning firm with a T contract. While he takes pride in performing his work well, bringing the same quality under shortened shifts poses a challenge, he said.

ABM and S.J. Services appear to be making cost savings by scaling back employee protections, some said. Reports were received of temporary workers brought on for one day, with minimum wage and no benefits, to supplement the staff reductions, said Roxana Rivera, vice president of SEIU 32BJ.

Twenty-five workers also had hours cut by exactly one hour — just enough for them to no longer be eligible for health care, Rivera said.

“That is cruel, and that is wrong,” she told board members. “It is very blatant what they’re doing there,” she told the Banner later. “This [hours change] is not operational.”

More than one-third of MBTA janitors have been affected by either loss of position or hours. More than 50 janitors have been laid off, of which at least 20 were full-time, according to Eugenio Villasante, the union’s communication strategist. More than 83 janitors had hours reduced, resulting in loss of healthcare for 46.

Call to act

The SEIU’s Roxana Rivera told the board members that they cannot simply blame the contractors but must step up and take responsibility for how they handle business.

Rivera asked control board members to analyze the actual costs associated with its cleaning contracts and restore the one hour to the 25 workers.

Several control board members expressed concerns over the janitors’ allegations.

Brian Lang, FCMB member and president of the Local 26 hotel and food service union, called the testimony moving and said allegations should be investigated.

“If this is happening, we should take action,” Lang stated, saying although the MBTA does not directly employ the janitors, it has responsibility to ensure fair labor conditions. If firms will not provide such conditions, he advised the MBTA to break the contracts and find other providers.

FCMB member Joseph Aiello said the workers’ reports were troubling, and that while he wishes to allow privatization at the T and the potential innovation it may bring, the board also ought to draft labor condition requirements and include them in their requests for proposals.

“Some of this stuff seems abusive,” Aiello said, of the janitors’ testimonies.

The MBTA currently is exempted from the Pacheco law, which requires public departments to make a case that outsourcing would provide equal or higher service at lower cost and that savings would not be made by cutting employee wages or benefits.

FCMB member Lisa Calise said she wanted to hear from contractors on the matter soon.

S.J. Services and ABM did not respond to a Banner phone call by press time.

Possible strike

In addition to those who clean the T, SEIU 32BJ also represents janitors who serve buildings in the Boston area. The union negotiates the same terms with all employers and their contract expires on September 30, Villasante said. If a deal cannot be reached, the union’s 13,000 janitors are ready to strike this Friday, members said.

There are several contested issues between SEIU and employers, Villasante told the Banner.

Among the sticking points: The union wishes to see as many janitors in full-time positions as possible, while some employers insist on providing full-time hours to only 30 percent of that workforce. Many employers prefer to hire multiple part-time workers instead of one full-time worker in order to avoid paying benefits, Villasante said.

“People cannot be forced to cobble together three or four part-time jobs to get food on the table,” Villasante told the Banner.

Another issue: Employers have requested that union standards not apply to those working in buildings below a certain size — 100,000 square feet — which would affect 1,000 janitors. SEIU is not willing to abandon protections for parts of its membership, Villasante said.

“There’s still time. We believe we can achieve a fairer deal,” he said.

FCMB member Lang advised other members that, while they cannot control the action of other employers, they may be able to avoid service disruption by acting quickly on the janitors’ allegation of mistreatment and showing they take the problems seriously.

Late night

Activists and state and city officials from Boston, Cambridge and Somerville also testified to FCMB members on the disparate impact that cessation of late night service has on low-wage workers and voiced support for a proposal from TransitMatters that the T resolve this by offering 24-hour bus service. This also would allow for night maintenance and cleaning on the subway, noted Rafael Mares, vice president and director of healthy communities and environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation.

Officials and activists said that contrary to the stereotype that late night-service cuts disappoint only drunk college students, those most affected are late-shift workers at hospitals, restaurants, bars, airports and other venues who cannot afford a car or regular rideshare or taxi service to get home.

Such workers may be forced to spend one to two hours’ worth of wages to get home if no public transit is provided, said First Suffolk District Rep. Adrian Madaro and Cambridge Rep. Mike Connolly. Others have chosen to sleep at work because they cannot afford the trip home without the T, said Lee Matseuda, political director of Alternatives for Community and Environment.

Those who do not use the T still benefit when those who do are able to reach their place of work and provide critical services, such as hospital care, said Mela Miles of the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition.

“Some folks use it, but everyone needs it,” Miles said.