- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

   Janitors and cleaning contractors for office buildings in the District negotiated late into the night in an effort to agree on a new contract and avoid a strike.
   About 4,000 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 82, who work in about 85 percent of the buildings in the District, said they will walk off the job as early as Monday if they do not get a new contract with more hours, better pay and health insurance for part-time workers.
   The union’s previous contract was to expire at midnight, but the union is not authorized to strike until Monday. The union and the Washington Service Contractors Association (WSCA), which represents 14 cleaning contractors in the District, could continue negotiating until the union’s strike-authorization vote, which is scheduled for Saturday.
    Contractors delivered a proposal to the union at 5 p.m. yesterday, and the union drafted a counterproposal. Nothing was settled as of press time.
   “We think this is the best way for us to turn these jobs into jobs people can raise families on,” union spokeswoman Cynthia Kain said last night. “We are committed to spending the night here if we have to.”
   At the top of the union’s demands is health care for part-time workers, who compose about 90 percent of all janitors. All full-time workers receive health care, but part-timers are not covered. Part-time union members said that with fewer hours and low wages, health care is too expensive to buy themselves.
   The contractors’ offer includes health care for the most senior workers, about 750, or 26 percent, of the union’s janitors. Workers without seniority will have the chance to pay into a different health plan.
   Though the two sides remained divided on the health care issue, they did agree earlier this week that health care should be awarded based on workers’ seniority, not the size of the building in which they work.
   Contractors defended their health care proposal, arguing that it is uncommon for part-time workers to receive health insurance, and that their proposal provides coverage for more part-time workers than any other service workers’ contract in the country.
   “There is a health care crisis in this country,” said Kevin Rohan, the lead negotiator for the WSCA and president of Cavalier Services Inc. “The position that has been [usually] taken is that the majority of folks don’t get health insurance. With us, that’s not the case. This is breaking new ground here.”
   The union members’ demands are similar to those from other states, who have protested and gone on strike as part of the vast Justice for Janitors campaign. In October, janitors in Boston went on strike for 24 days before gaining wage increases and some improvements in health care.
   Justice for Janitors was formed in 1985 by John Sweeney, the current president of the AFL-CIO labor federation. He gained notoriety in the 1990s by organizing janitor uprisings in the District that disrupted traffic and drew attention to the complaints of low-wage workers.
   More than 90 percent of the janitors are Latino, many of whom speak little English. The average worker makes about $8 per hour and works between four and six hours a day.
   Union members insist that the janitors should be paid more and receive better benefits because they work in the country’s best real estate market. Janitors in the District rank 16th in pay out of the top 20 U.S. cities. The union asked for a 65 percent increase in wages and benefits over three years. Contractors proposed a 27 percent increase over five years.
   Contractors argue that higher costs for services will mean higher building-maintenance costs, which can lead to rent increases. And, they said, office-building owners in the District are facing competition from lower-rent offerings in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.
   Real estate analysts said that 10 to 15 percent of building owners’ operating costs stem from maintenance. Health care and wage increases will boost that, they said.
   lth care] is going to have a significant impact on the cost of services to be delivered, if it’s a requirement,” said Mike Renner, a principal in property management division of Spaulding and Slye Colliers.

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