Milagros Cruz took a bus to downtown Hartford on Thursday intending to join 350 other union janitors for an afternoon rally in support of higher wages and expanded health care.
The union contract covering Cruz and 2,000 other janitors in Greater Hartford was due to expire Dec. 31, and negotiations with more than dozen cleaning contractors, underway since mid-October, had stalled.
But the rally quickly turned into a victory celebration when leaders of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union announced that they had reached a tentative agreement on a four-year contract with employers a half-hour before the planned rally and march through downtown was set to begin.
The tentative contract provides a 50 cent annual hourly pay increase for the next four years. That equals an increase of about 4 percent a year for janitors who work in Hartford and about 5 percent for those who work in the suburbs and typically earn less, said Kurt Westby, the local's Connecticut director.
The announcement put a smile on the face of Cruz, 30, of New Britain, a single mother of three who hasn't had a raise in four years.
"This will help me support my kids and will help with their insurance," said Cruz, who has worked as a janitor for the last eight years.
Janitors in Greater Hartford now earn from $10.25 to $11.80 per hour. Under the agreement forged Thursday, the range would increase to $12.50 to $13.80 in the fourth year of the contract. Employers also agreed to cover fully full-time workers' family health care insurance premiums.
In 2004, full-time workers became eligible for the first time for no-cost family health care benefits.
Union leaders have not yet set a date for its members to ratify the contract, said Lynsey Kryzwick, a union spokeswoman.
Suburban office cleaners gained two personal days and won a pension benefit for the first time. If the contract is ratified, about 500 janitors would be eligible for the pension benefit, Westby said.
As part of the agreement, part-time workers would be guaranteed a minimum of 25 hours of work per week, instead of the current 20 hours a week. They also received an improved health benefit, which would include life insurance, a prescription drug benefit and dental and optical insurance.
Employers also agreed to create more full-time jobs. About 25 percent of union janitors are part-time employees. "They're going to add several more Hartford-area buildings into the full-time category," Westby said. Health insurance benefits are available to full-time union janitors who work 30 or more hours a week.
Employers agreed to an improved training program, which includes industry skills classes classes in English as a second language, as well as a legal services benefit program.
"It's a big victory. I'm happy like everybody else," said Sara Pastorelli, 60, of West Hartford, a member of Local 32BJ's bargaining committee and a union member since 1988.
"It's a very good contract, the best I've seen in the last five years," Pastorelli said.
Union membership in Connecticut, which numbers about 4,500, has been growing an average of about 5 percent per year, Westby said.
Local 32BJ represents about 100,000 janitors in six states and Washington, D.C., including Connecticut, New York, New Jersey.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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