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This Holiday Season, Thank a Janitor

In 2019, cleaners’ unions have led the way in fighting workplace sexual violence

We’ve made it through the Winter Solstice, and across the United States people are celebrating the end of another laborious trip ’round the sun. The end of December is traditionally a time for warmth, good cheer, and—for many of us—boozy office parties. The chance to let one’s hair down, double fist weak seasonal cocktails, and engage in pained conversation with the various middle managers who could upend your career on a whim is a time-honored tradition in many workplaces, but as a timely tweet from Political Research Associates assistant research director Tina Vasquez made clear, these holly jolly affairs often leave many workers out in the cold.

“My dad, who is a janitor, told me the holiday season is very hard on him because people have office parties & don’t clean up after themselves, which doubles his work,” Vasquez wrote. “So, PSA: Don’t be an asshole. If you have an office party, tidy up after. Shit doesn’t magically clean itself.”

Her words should ring especially loudly this year, which saw an explosion in collective worker action as well as increased awareness over the struggles faced by low-wage workers in multiple industries, from fast food to tech. Many of these workers are part of vulnerable marginalized communities, and janitors and other building cleaning staff are no exception. According to Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center, women in the janitorial industry are at a particular risk of experiencing sexual violence on the job due to a number of factors, including the fact that they often work in isolation, may have uncertain immigration status, and may have have language barriers that make it more difficult to communicate issues.

In 2015, PBS released a Frontline documentary, Rape on the Night Shift, that shone a harsh light on just how endemic a problem sexual violence is within the cleaning industry, and how vulnerable women workers are to its effects. The union representing janitorial workers, the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (USWW), was caught totally off-guard. In a pre-#MeToo world, sexual harassment hadn’t been on the union leadership’s radar; they’d been focused on bread-and-butter economic issues. Yet in California alone, USWW represents twenty-five thousand janitors across the state, the majority of whom are immigrant women of color. Clearly, a significant part of the membership was suffering in silence, and when the documentary dropped, it sent a shockwave through the entire union. But the leadership and members immediately began working to make things right. In 2016, the Ya Basta—Spanish for “enough is enough!”—campaign was born.

This year saw an explosion in collective worker action as well as increased awareness over the struggles faced by low-wage workers in multiple industries, from fast food to tech.

Ya Basta is a worker-led, survivor-centered campaign against sexual harassment that has taken a dual power approach; its members both tirelessly advocate for legislation to protect them and their fellow workers, in addition to directly engaging in peer-to-peer organizing, training, and mentorship. By staging demonstrations, marches, hunger strikes and speak-outs, they’ve pushed the issue of sexual harassment further into the public sphere, and Ya Basta inspired California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to introduce the 2017 Property Service Workers Protection Act, which protects janitors from wage theft and sexual harassment on the job. In addition, they have trained a legion of promotoras—community-based trainers who go into workplaces to share knowledge and resources with fellow workers—to continue the work on the ground.

In 2019, over one hundred promotoras were certified as trainers in collaboration with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. That same year, they opened the Ya Basta Center, which provides promotoras a space to engage with fellow workers, educate them on their legal rights and self-empowerment, and continue training the janitorial community to confront and eradicate sexual harassment on the job. In October, Ya Basta notched another legal victory when the Janitor Survivor Empowerment Act was signed into law. The bill expands the legal framework for the promotoras’ mission, and requires that employers make qualified peer-to-peer trainings on workplace sexual violence available to every janitor in California. Ya Basta’s continuing success provides a powerful blueprint of the kind of real-world progress that can be won when a union wholeheartedly commits its resources to campaigns led by sexual assault survivors and immigrant women of color.

Ya Basta grew out of the larger USWW-backed Justice for Janitors movement, which started back in 1990 in response to the workforce’s low wages and poor working conditions. Today, the conversation the promotoras kickstarted over sexual harassment at work has continued to spread throughout the labor movement. It was a major factor in a recent spate of contract negotiations and strike votes by members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 32BJ, a union representing seventy-five thousand office cleaners nationwide. According to an internal poll, two-thirds of the membership wanted an active campaign to prevent sexual harassment on the job, and the bargaining committees went to the table determined to achieve that goal.

It hasn’t been easy. In New Jersey, seven thousand office cleaners who work in five hundred buildings (including shopping centers and major transportation hubs like PATH stations) narrowly avoided a strike last week when they reached a last-minute tentative agreement with their employers. The cleaners held a unanimous strike authorization vote following months of negotiations and public demonstrations, including a mass action on December 17 in which thousands of 32BJ members (as well as elected officials including Mayor Ras Baraka) shut down the streets of Newark, New Jersey, to draw attention to their cause.

Across the river in New York City, 32BJ cleaners at Con Edison (whose current contract expires on December 31, the same date as their NJ counterparts) held a strike vote of their own last week. This particular group of workers have had a busy few months. On November 21, hundreds rallied in support of the Utilities Prevailing Wage Bill, which passed the New York Assembly and Senate and is waiting to be delivered to Governor Cuomo. The bill would require privately-owned utility companies like Con Edison that receive monopoly rights from the state to pay their two janitors and security officers the prevailing wage (a standard already followed by most contractors in New York state). The union says that Con-Ed has long tried to skirt its obligations to provide benefits and fair wages to these workers, and that this legislation is needed to force them to clean up their act.

Their bargaining committee has also been locked in negotiations with the Realty Advisory Board since November 14, and with the contract expiration looming, the workers decided that it was time for a show of force. Hundreds of office cleaners and their supporters took to the streets in New York City on December 18, marching up Sixth Avenue and cheered on by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Had the workers actually gone out on strike, the union says that about 1,300 buildings would’ve been affected, including iconic properties like the Empire State Building, 30 Rock, and the World Trade Center buildings—surely a chilling thought for the property owners depending on the tourist-packed holiday shopping season to further fatten their wallets. For the workers barely scraping by on subsistence wages, though, it would have been worth it.

“All I wanted for Christmas was a strong new contract,” Kristinia Bellamy, a cleaner and a member of the New York City SEIU 32BJ bargaining committee, told the New York Daily News.

“We just want our fair share of the value we create for building owners, so we can continue to raise our families in New York, and make our communities better,” Ena Softley, a cleaner at 3 Times Square and 32BJ member for 32 years, said in a statement.

The new NJ and NY 32BJ contracts—which the union expects to ratify this week—include much-needed wage increases as well as improved retirement benefits and sick leave policies and the creation of a statewide labor management committee to discuss the physically demanding conditions of working as a janitor. According to SEIU 32BJ Deputy Communications Director Amity Pae, office cleaners in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Long Island, and Connecticut also won new contracts in December, all of which  mark historic firsts for the union.

“This is the first time we have negotiated rules and requirements around sexual harassment in our contract,” she explained via email. “That includes a shared (employers and the union) set of definitions, requires employers to develop and post sexual harassment policies, and lays out a follow up and disciplinary procedure.”

“We all need to feel safe at work,” said Sandra Agudelo, a cleaner at Allergan in Madison, New Jersey, via email. “Sexual harassment is a real and pervasive issue in the service industry that a lot of us face on the job, and I’m sick of it. Our contract creates a standard that holds everyone accountable for instances of sexual harassment. This is about women having a voice on the job. We shouldn’t feel threatened or pressured to do something or act in a certain way, especially at work.”

When asked what the public can do to support the janitors in their continuing struggle, Agudelo said, “We, cleaners, want to raise awareness and reject sexual harassment in our society and in all industries, because our best tool is education, in addition to support and guidance for victims. The public can help by raising awareness, denouncing it, to show that this is real in our society and at our work sites.”

In the wake of #MeToo, the message of Ya Basta’s promotoras will only continue to reverberate. The victories won by USWW and SEIU 32BJ show that when unions listen to their members and prioritize those lessons, working-class women and nonbinary people gain added firepower to collectively bargain for material improvements to their lives.

“All I wanted for Christmas was a strong new contract,” Kristinia Bellamy, a cleaner and a member of the New York City SEIU 32BJ bargaining committee, told the New York Daily News. “I am so happy we have that now.”

As I’m sure Bellamy and her fellow workers would agree, these new contracts were no Christmas miracle; they were the result of hard work, worker solidarity, and the continuing efforts of a revitalized labor movement. Happy holidays to all, and to all, ¡sí se puede!