Imelda Herrera was wearing a union button while cleaning a building owned by the DWS Group, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, in Coral Gables, Florida, on the night of June 23. Toward the end of her shift as a custodial employee of Coastal Building Maintenance (CBM), she was approached by a supervisor.
Pointing at the button, which read, “I’m an essential worker,” the manager asked her, “What is that?” recounts Herrera through a translator.
“I told her that it was from the union, and we are fighting for better benefits and wages,” she continues. The manager told Herrera that she was going to take a photo of the button so that it could be sent to the company’s higher-ups who would “decide what was going to happen” to Herrera and the three other workers who were also sporting the buttons.
“She said that the union is never going to do anything for me because the union is never going to get into the company, and that we should lose all hope because nothing’s going to change,” says Hererra. “She told me not to bother with the union because I could lose my job.”
But Herrera is a member of the Justice for Janitors campaign, which has thus far won a collective bargaining agreement that covers eleven cleaning contractors in South Florida, around 80 percent of the area’s commercial real estate market. CBM — one of the state’s largest contractors, employing approximately a thousand custodial workers — continues to hold out. Tired as she was from her work, for which she is paid $11 an hour with no benefits, an income that only affords her a one-bedroom which she shares with her husband and their three sons, she did not back down.
“I told the supervisor that I had a lot of faith in the union and that my faith is the last thing that I’m going to lose,” says Herrera. “I said that we are strong and firm in fighting for our rights.”
Union or Death
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) first kicked off the Justice for Janitors campaign in the late 1980s. Outsourcing to subcontractors had transformed largely well-paid, full-time custodial jobs into part-time, precarious labor, leaving the workforce scraping together work to stay afloat. In the summer of 1990, janitors at Century Cleaning, a building-services contractor used by Los Angeles’s real estate companies, struck for the right to organize. The Los Angeles Police Department responded with brutality, attacking the largely immigrant strikers, actions that were caught on camera and broadcast around the world.
“Two women miscarried, dozens were hospitalized, and 60 strikers and supporters were jailed,” recalled Stephen Lerner and Jono Shaffer, two of Justice for Janitors’ original organizers, in a reflection on the campaign. The Century City workers ultimately won, with their new contract doubling their pay and improving their benefits. The organizing drive spread as janitors elsewhere followed suit.
In 2006, cleaners at UNICCO, the University of Miami’s contractor, not only walked off the job but went on a weeks-long hunger strike to win their campaign. Write Lerner and Shaffer, “Workers in wheelchairs, weakened by the fast, surrounded the university’s president Donna Shalala and chanted in Spanish, ‘Union or death!’” As in other cities, the union targeted not only the contractor that directly employed janitors but the entity that hired that contractor, putting pressure on the more powerful institution that ultimately controlled wages and working conditions.
Such an approach paved the way for a sort of sectoral bargaining for janitors, bringing up standards at contractors across a region and thus evading companies’ arguments that raising wages at one contractor would put it at a competitive disadvantage. Today SEIU touts some 160,000 janitors organized through the campaign. The union says the collective bargaining agreements add up to more than $1 billion in increased wages and benefits.
Sixteen years after the University of Miami campaign, 32BJ SEIU, which represents around 72,000 janitors, is once again organizing South Florida’s largely immigrant custodial workforce, Imelda Herrera among them. In November of 2019, a study by UCLA and 32BJ found that 57 percent of janitors in South Florida live below or near the federal poverty line, 69 percent are rent-burdened, 49 percent are uninsured, and 33 percent rely on government assistance programs. When taking the area’s cost of living into account, the janitors are the lowest-paid cleaners in any of the United States’ major metropolitan areas; the study estimates their median wage at $8.50 an hour. While commercial real estate lessees’ profits and wages surged from 1998 to 2018, the area’s janitors saw their wages increase a mere 1.6 percent.
“Janitors want their jobs to be a path to the middle class and they can’t do it if they’re an isolated pocket of good jobs, they have to help organize the market,” Helene O’Brien, SEIU’s Florida coordinator, told the Guardian last year. The campaign began in 2019, and the janitors won a first two-year contract in May of 2022. Cleaners covered by the agreement immediately received a $1–$1.50 hourly increase, which will again go up $1–$1.50 in October (the extra 50 cents is for full-time employees). The contract also includes holidays, paid time off, grievance procedures, progressive discipline, the right to be represented by a union representative during disciplinary meetings, and requires that contractors institute policies to address the sexual harassment that pervades the industry.
CBM has yet to sign on to the agreement. A number of companies, including Deutsche Bank and the DWS Group, continue to contract out building maintenance to CBM — this is despite DWS’s Responsible Contractor Policy, which avers that the company will maintain neutrality toward union drives.
There is plenty of evidence that CBM is not neutral toward organizing. Management’s behavior toward Hererra led the union to file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). On June 8, cleaners showed up outside of Deutsche Bank headquarters in New York City to hand out pink slips, calling on DWS’s board to follow its CEO’s lead and resign. The following day, janitors introduced a shareholder’s proposal at DWS’s annual meeting which called for a vote of no confidence on the supervisory board of DWS.
“I spent New Year’s Eve in the hospital with the coronavirus,” said Esperanza Jimenez, a former CBM janitor at a DWS building in Miami. “I was worried about my bills, because it doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not, you still have to pay them. When I left the hospital, I was still getting these horrible muscular pains all over my body and terrible headaches, but I couldn’t miss any work because they’re not going to pay me for my days off.”
The union alleges that CBM has threatened and intimidated janitors who participate in union activity — Herrera being just the latest worker to experience such violations — and has failed to provide workers with adequate personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, surveilled workers during a strike, and required janitors to work off the clock at a building in Miami-Dade County.
“Sometimes my coworkers work extra hours and they don’t get paid overtime,” says Maria Matilla, a CBM janitor who is paid $10 an hour to clean a building in South Miami. The reason is that workers are tasked with cleaning more floors than they can get through during a four-hour shift. Many of the custodial workers do not speak English and do not know their rights. Fearing that failure to clean their full turf will lead CBM to fire them, they stay past the end of their 6 PM to 10 PM shift, additional time for which they are not always compensated.
“I never eat, and there is no time to take a break,” says sixty-three-year-old Matilla, who must clean ten floors — eighteen bathrooms, plus mopping, sweeping, picking up garbage, and changing trash bags — each night in the building where she has worked for the past year. And the workload and low wages aren’t the only problems at CBM, either.
“I’m given a thirty-two-ounce bottle of cleaning supplies to clean eighteen bathrooms, so I sometimes run out and have to just use water and regular hand soap,” says Matilla. Earlier in the pandemic, CBM didn’t supply workers adequate gloves, so she had to buy her own. Matilla also recently received a small chemical burn on her hand from a degreaser used during her shift. Plus, the building’s air-conditioning is turned off during the janitors’ night shifts, leaving cleaners to sweat in occasionally sweltering bathrooms. Matilla says that when she brings the issue up with her supervisor, he tells her that building management controls the air-conditioning, not him.
When Matilla was approached by a union supporter at a building where she used to work, she wasn’t interested, as she felt the work at that location was relatively easy. But since switching locations to shorten her commute, she has changed her mind. She was a union member previously when living in New Jersey, and that experience informs her view of the difference organization can make, particularly for vulnerable workers like South Florida’s janitors.
“If I continue with this part-time job, it helps to have the union involved to win better benefits, job security, and so on,” says Matilla. “Some people have the wrong perspective and think that organizing is going to cause them to get terminated and the union won’t be behind them. I want them to be better informed about what the union can do for you.”