Sara Pastorelli, a long-time member of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents janitors, does not know any of the 5,300 janitors in Houston. But she and thousands of other SEIU members from across the country banded together this year to support a successful organizing campaign for their Texas peers, demanding better wages and benefits. Like many of the Houston workers, Pastorelli, 55, is employed by ABM Janitorial Services, one of several national firms in the business. Pastorelli, who immigrated to the United States in 1976 from Peru, spoke through a translator.
Q. Some Hartford janitors traveled to Houston this summer to participate in the union's organizing campaign. Others, including you, were very involved in raising awareness and garnering support here. Why?
A. We got involved because we had to help our sisters and brothers in Houston. In Hartford, we have benefits and decent wages because we have a union. We found out that the Houston people were working for some of the same companies that we work for, and sometimes were working in buildings owned by the same owners, but they were earning a lot less money and had no benefits at all. The workers are from the same countries that the Hartford workers are from: Mexico, Central and South America, Jamaica. We have the same dreams.
Q. What did you do in the effort?
A. When we found out that Houston was trying to organize, we looked at our contract and saw that we have the language that allows us to honor their picket lines. There was a picket line one day in Hartford in July. My co-workers and I stayed outside and did not report to work that day. It was quiet and orderly. There was no negative reaction from the employers or the tenants of the building because, a few days before, we had leafleted the building to explain what we were doing and why. We reached victory because we stood together with workers from other areas of the country.
Q. In Houston, your employer, ABM, was paying approximately $5.25 an hour without benefits to cleaners such as you. What is the pay for the same work here in Hartford?
A. We make $11.10 an hour for those on light-duty classification. Those with heavy-duty classification make $11.40 per hour; this is a big difference. With our current contract, we will have two wage increases, one in January and one in July, of 20 cents an hour.
Q. Can a cleaner achieve a middle-class lifestyle in Hartford?
A. No. Not without working more than one job. The nighttime job as a cleaner is basically my first job, where I get benefits, but I have another daytime job. I clean houses.
I've been a shop steward for six years for 40 co-workers at CityPlace. Twenty-five or 30 of those co-workers have two, sometimes three jobs in total, especially if they have little kids to support. This is why the union fights so hard for decent salary, so that we can survive on one job. Another thing we have struggled with is to increase our hours so that we can get benefits. This is something the employers in this industry try to avoid. If they keep us part-time, they don't have to pay benefits.
I don't think about retiring, I just thank God that I feel strong to keep working. In my building I have six or seven co-workers that are in their late 60s or their 70s, still cleaning.
Q. There are new development projects and renovations downtown - upscale apartments, hotels and restaurants. Some have union workers, and some, such as the convention center and the Marriott, do not. How do you view this development?
A. I believe that it creates more opportunity for employment, but the problem is that we have to be organized. We have to be sure that those new jobs coming into the city have union workers so that they are paid fairly. I would not take a job that is not union. In the union, I feel protected.
I try to explain, especially to new hires, how the union works - that we have had to struggle to get whatever we have right now and that we have to protect it. It is important to belong to a syndicate, to be a union member.
Q. In 2007, Local 32BJ will negotiate a new contract that covers 60,000 workers employed by several companies from Boston to Washington, D.C. What to you hope to accomplish?
A. We are already getting ready for this fight. Our priorities are to maintain and improve our health insurance, to have wage increases and an improvement to our pension plan, and we are looking for job security.
It will be a very hard fight. We will have to present our proposals to the employers. Depending upon their response, we will be willing to escalate. During this struggle, we will have the support of community groups, religious groups and from some politicians. If they support our issues, no matter what party they are from, we support them. By working together, from Boston down to Washington, we can put more pressure on the employers. And as we supported the Houston workers, we are 100 percent sure that they will support us, too, when the time comes.
We have a powerful tool that we can use if we have to. If the employers force us to, we will have to strike. But we will make every effort to reach our goals without doing that.
Q. Your employer is ABM, but you work with the building occupants at CityPlace I. How do the professional relationships that you maintain with these two organizations differ?
A. The floor where I work is a law firm. I work there every night cleaning. They are very nice people and always ask about our struggle. They have been supportive to us.
But I believe that the employers do not appreciate what we do every night. We do the job, and the company makes the profits. The companies try to put a low price offer in to win the contracts with the building owners, and they try to give us more work to do in the same hours. We have the same needs as they do: to take care of our health and our families, to make progress, to send our children to college.
Q. Aren't you afraid to speak out in the newspaper?
A. No. I am a member of the union, and I know my rights.
Jennifer Warner Cooper is a free-lance writer in Glastonbury.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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