U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren joined a rally of thousands of union janitors, food workers, security guards and others in the Boston Common early Saturday afternoon to advocate for a new contract with higher wages and expanded benefits for city workers.
“This city needs you,” Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, told the crowd from the Common’s Parkman Bandstand. “These gleaming towers around us, well, they wouldn’t be so gleaming if it weren’t for the people who came in every night, who worked hard, who dusted, who vacuumed, who emptied the trash, who kept it all going for the rest of us.”
The Sept. 10 rally was organized by 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union that represents 18,000 New England janitors and security officers, including the Northeastern University Janitorial Workers Union. The fight was personal for Warren, whose father was a janitor, she said.
“I saw how underappreciated [my father’s] work was. I also saw how important a paycheck is to keep a family together,” Warren said. “And so I wanted to be here today for exactly one reason, and that is to say: In this fight for fair wages, I’m with you.”
The current contracts, which are set to expire on Sept. 30, cover over 13,000 janitors who clean buildings such as the Prudential Center and 200 Clarendon (formerly the John Hancock Tower) and institutions such as Harvard University and Tufts University. 32BJ hopes to negotiate new contracts that include wage increases that keep up with rising costs of living, full-time employment opportunities and employer-paid health care that extends to families of full-time workers, according to a Sept. 8 statement from the union.
“The Boston office market is booming, but for too many hardworking men and women, making ends meet is still a challenge,” 32BJ New England District 615 Vice President Roxana Rivera said in the statement. “While our economy overall has rebounded, we need to ensure that strength is reflected in the jobs and wages of working people.”
The energetic crowd of 32BJ workers and supporters donned matching purple shirts and held signs that read, “Raise America with good jobs” in English and Spanish. The rally attendees continued to chant phrases like “justice now” in Spanish, even as pouring rain dampened the event.
Although the rain cleared before City Councilor at-Large Ayanna Pressley took the stage, she said she wished it had continued to pour because the weather was symbolic of their movement.
“Every one of you – when it was raining, when you were sick, when your children were sick, when your body was hurting – you still returned to work every day,” Pressley said.
Elias Ventura, who has worked for Northeastern’s cleaning contractor for the past nine years, said it felt great to be supported by so many people at the rally. Ventura, a 45-year-old Roxbury resident, works full-time cleaning 716 Columbus Avenue, a Northeastern building that houses several offices including the Alumni Center and the human resources department.
“[The rally] was important because a lot of workers were still on the fence, a lot of workers didn’t know about how powerful 32BJ is,” Ventura said in a phone interview in Spanish through a translator. “When we take the streets, you realize that it is for real […] you realize that you are not invisible.”
Ventura, who is also a bargaining member, said he is optimistic that the union will be able to negotiate a favorable contract.
“We are trying to keep what we have,” he said. “And we want a fair raise, which is what we have been having over the last four years – a wage that increases with the cost of living.”
Juan Nuñez, 36, traveled to the rally from Manhattan, where he works as a cleaner at 30 Rockefeller Center. He said he hoped the event would inspire politicians to make it easier for janitors to work and make money.
“If nobody is going to make a stand, then we’re going to have to make a stand,” said Nuñez, who was joined by several of his co-workers. “That’s why we’re here, to show our support.”
Trevor King, a 46-year-old security officer for the New York City Housing Authority building in Staten Island, came from Brooklyn to stand in solidarity with Boston’s workers.
“[I’m here] for these workers to get the contract they deserve, to help a strong job market for working families,” King said.
Members of the Northeastern Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) also attended the rally as a show of support for the university’s janitors and other Boston workers.
“I feel like everyone in America should have at least a decent working contract,” said PSA member Irem Girmen, a senior sociology and international affairs major.
Sarah Anderson, another PSA member, stressed the importance of having strong unions to stand behind its workers.
“It’s important to everyone in Boston that unions are strong here,” said Anderson, a junior environmental studies and political science major. “It’s important to all cities.”
Warren agreed that labor unions were vital for ensuring a successful future for the country. The workers in 32BJ have something her father didn’t have, the senator said – a strong union that has their backs.
“Labor built America’s middle class,” Warren said. “And labor unions are going to rebuild America’s middle class.”
Photo by Scotty Schenck.