Portland area janitors ratify contract

Portland’s union janitors ratified a new five-year master agreement in a unanimous voice vote July 12. About 200 janitors attended the contract vote three days after negotiators for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 and union janitorial contractors reached agreement, and 12 days after the old pact expired.

The agreement covers about 1,800 janitors at 11 firms, most of whom are employed cleaning Class A commercial office buildings; city, county and federal buildings; the Portland airport; and Portland Public Schools.

The contract eliminates employee-paid premiums for health coverage, and contains “trigger language” to extend coverage to family members as union density reaches 70 percent in each of four local markets. Union density for downtown Portland is currently 57 percent, while density in the south metro area, other Portland suburbs, and Clark County, Washington, is less than 15 percent.

The contract also contains raises of 10 cents an hour in the first year and 25 cents an hour each succeeding year, reaching $10.60 an hour in 2007. Plus, janitors won paid sick days for the first time: One sick day in the fourth year, and two in the fifth.

The Portland deal comes on the heels of nine similar agreements along the West Coast. In membership surveys, fully-paid family health insurance was the primary issue workers wanted to fight for in Portland and elsewhere. To win it, Sacramento janitors struck for four days, and janitors in Denver and Seattle came near to a strike to maintain it. Portland is the only West Coast city that still doesn’t have family medical coverage for its unionized janitors. Not coincidentally, it also has the lowest union density among major West Coast cities with unionized janitors. Most West Coast cities have densities of over 80 percent.

All of SEIU’s building service locals negotiated five-year city-by-city master contracts this time, which are set to expire in the spring and summer of 2008.

“For us, this buys labor peace, so we can focus our resources on organizing,” said Local 49 organizing director Alonzo Suzon.

In Portland, janitors and their supporters took to the streets with as many as half a dozen noisy and spirited marches in the course of three months.

On June 9, agreement was reached, but one employer — Portland Habilitation Center — held out, refusing to agree to the 10-cent hourly raise. The next day, PHC was bombarded by phone calls and faxes, as the union mobilized elected leaders, advocates for the disabled, and union members and supporters to contact PHC head John Murphy, who also got a surprise visit at his office by a large delegation of janitors. PHC signed the next day.

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