Janitors march for fair contract

Justice for Janitors had its largest Portland mobilization yet June 13.

Escorted by police who blocked off streets as they marched, about 250 janitors and supporters marched through downtown Portland at noon. Many blew whistles and marched to the beat of a drum corps as they passed by office buildings some of them clean. Most wore purple T-shirts with the logo of their union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49.

Passing the corner of Southwest Sixth and Main, they marched by a three-story-high purple banner unfurled by three union activists from a parking garage, emblazoned with the line, “Got healthcare?”

Local 49 has engaged in contract negotiations on behalf of nearly 2,000 janitors who live and work in the Portland metropolitan area. The local janitorial master agreement expires June 30.

Health benefits is a primary goal of the Justice for Janitors campaign, which is a national push by SEIU to bring up janitor wages and benefits.

Marcher Natalyia Khodzhayeva is typical of union janitors in Portland: After immigrating from the Ukraine three years ago, she found work at a union janitorial firm. She now earns $9.50 an hour cleaning the downtown Portland ODS building, but she can’t afford health coverage for her 4-year-old daughter.

To increase market share in Portland, the union has been energetically pushing large commercial real estate companies to sign up union firms —even as it negotiates a new city-wide contract for some 1,800 janitors. The current contract expires June 30.

Some commercial property owners [like Equity Office Properties Trust, the nation’s largest] contract with union janitorial firms to clean buildings in Los Angeles, but not in Lake Oswego’s Kruse Way corridor. Raising market share is seen as key to improving janitor conditions for Portland, which has the lowest-compensated union janitors of any major West Coast city.

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