The largest janitor’s union armed itself with information Saturday as its leaders prepared to sit down and negotiate a contract for its 2,000 janitors across the state.
Gathered at a church in Hartford, Kurt Westby, state director for Service Employees International Union 32BJ, told its members that it’s likely the building owners will try to use the economy as an excuse to keep wage increases low. But Westby said the perception that the economy is sluggish would be inaccurate.
“Hartford has the fastest growing economy right now,“ Westby said.
According to news articles Hartford’s economy is growing at a rate of 3.8 percent. He said they made sure building owners and contractors knew the economy was turning around at their first meeting last week.
“Corporate profits grew 5 percent last year,“ Westby said. “So there’s plenty of money out there. Where is it? Dónde está?” The crowd grumbled that it wasn’t in their pockets.
Aetna’s profits were $215 million, CIGNA’s $1.3 billion, The Hartford’s $1.7 billion, and Travelers $900 million, Westby told them.
“What about the workers?” he asked in both English and Spanish. “Last year the number of people living in poverty grew by 12 million.”
And while the median income decreased 6 percent last year, the per capita income rose 3 percent, which means “people people got richer, while the working class suffered and lost money,” Westby said.
The four year contract, which expires Dec. 31, kept up with inflation, Westby said.
In the Hartford area janitors make $13.50 an hour, but there was a study done that says in order to live in Hartford you need $23 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment. He said workers in New Haven make $11 an hour and their goal is to move both those hourly wages up in negotiations. He said for janitors in New Haven working 25 hours a week it puts them below the federal poverty level for a family of two.
He said another goal is to increase the number of workers working 30 hours a week because 30 hours is enough to qualify for health insurance through the union. He said about 80 percent of its members currently have insurance through the plan and sometimes those unable to get 30 hours work second and third jobs.
“We want fair wage increases,” Westby said. “But we’re going to have to be really animated about it to get it. Being right is not enough.”
The crowd cheered.
He told them they will have to be ready to strike Jan. 1. He said the other part of being ready is making sure it has its friends, supporters, and political allies lined up to help them.
Several of those political allies attended Saturday’s meeting, including Hartford City Council members Larry Deutsche, Luis Cotto, and Cynthia Jennings, and Sen. John Fonfara of Hartford, New Britain Mayor Timothy O’Brien, and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who is running for U.S. Senate.
Each brought with them a populist message.
O’Brien told them that nothing changes in society unless its starts with everyday people, such as the janitors. Fonfara said janitors do the job nobody else wants to do.
Fonfara, who picketed outside the Hartford Courant last month with the janitors, said officials at the newspaper told him that “it wasn’t a Hartford Courant issue that workers receive a decent wage.”
“That’s what’s wrong with what’s going on in our country,” Fonfara said.
The Courant decided to consolidate its cleaning services and the winning bidder according to sources was Pressroom Cleaners, a non-union contractor which already cleans the Courant’s press room area.
The desire to go with non-union contractors is what the union’s up against in these negotiations.
In October the Courant ended its contract with Capitol Cleaners for its headquarters on Broad Street. Eight janitors could be laid off on Dec. 12 as a result of that decision, even though Capitol Cleaners, the union contractor, will keep its contract with the Courant for its eight other facilities.
Murphy told the janitors that he stands for decent wages that can help support a family and put a roof over workers’ heads. He said he doesn’t go to Washington D.C. to fight for the one percent, but the 99 percent.
“These big corporations may think that they’re doing themselves a favor by paying you less and keeping more for themselves, but the truth is if we don’t have people who have enough money to go buy the things these companies make then they’re going to fail too,” Murphy said.
“We are all in this together,” he added.