labor Building Cleaners Rally for Fair Wages and Life-Saving Benefits
Just this year, we’ve seen UPS Teamsters secure a historic $30 billion new contract that abolishes tiers and substantially raises wages. We’ve seen the UAW successfully strike for contracts that boost pay, protect benefits, and crystallize the prospect of a green auto industry.
Now, building cleaners across the country are next up to negotiate equitable deals and notch new victories for a labor movement confronting an uncertain future. On the line? Their ability to keep living and working in their home cities with ease and dignity. All told, contracts covering more than 134,000 SEIU cleaners nationwide are up for renegotiation over the next year with different SEIU locals, over half of whom belong to 32BJ SEIU locals on the east coast.
The negotiation wave is already underway — building solidarity in the process. In October, 2,000 commercial cleaners in Philadelphia won a new contract that raised wages by 18.6 percent over the course of four years, along with inflation-pegged bonuses and retirement benefits. Building cleaners from Massachusetts and Rhode Island to D.C. and Pittsburgh are organizing hard for fair agreements before their current contracts expire. And in New York, negotiations began last week for a new contract covering the 20,000 union cleaners who steward some of the most iconic buildings in the city’s skyline.
Ena Softley — a senior worker at a skyscraper in Manhattan’s Times Square, a proud member of 32BJ SEIU, and a resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn — has been cleaning buildings for 37 years. She loves her work: It’s hard, but she’s of service to people, and she feels secured by decades of union organizing. Inequality.org‘s managing editor, Bella DeVaan, caught up with Softley about her work and what’s at stake. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
Inequality.org: Tell us about how work has been for you over the last few years. How did the pandemic change your life?
Ena Softley: I got Covid in March 2020. We knew so much less then: I kept going, exhausted and not feeling well, until I collapsed. I was very, very ill. The hospitals were packed and people were dying. But because of my union benefits and insurance, I was able to keep seeing my private doctor, who treated me over Zoom. For three weeks, he couldn’t break my fever. He warned me: If I went back to work before the pandemic ended, my body wouldn’t be able to defeat the virus again.
But after staying home for three months trying to recover, stringing together my vacation and sick days, I had to come back to work. I had to pay my bills. When the pandemic began, management sent half of our staff away, but in May of 2020 they needed senior workers like me back to prepare the building for returning tenants. The city was still shut down — so we became essential workers. We couldn’t leave: How would we get paid? We couldn’t exactly work from home.
Inequality.org: What was it like to return to work in the midst of the pandemic?
Ena Softley: Riding the empty subway, looking up and down a deserted Times Square, my building looming, the weight of expectations intensified. My breathing got heavy: I have labored breathing ever since Covid and take steroids and medication, which I can afford only because of my benefits. I was so nervous and afraid because so many people were dying. I thought, what if I get it again?
We risked our lives, coming back. But we did it because we’d just signed a four year contract in December of 2019. We’d invested so much in winning that contract over the course of decades, which enabled me to keep my health insurance and take time off to recover.
Union workers are reliable: We showed up for our buildings. We kept sanitizing and wiping everything off. I was forced to get a grip of my fear — and after that, I just kept going.
Inequality.org: How are things, now, at your building? For workers in your industry, more broadly?
Now, things are good. The building reopened, we have new contracts coming in, office workers are here and more are on the way. They’re so happy that we’re still here — everyone thanks us for making things clean, ready, and on-point. Our tenants feel very safe that we original workers are present for them. And as the trains and buses fill with commuters, it’s clear that people are back to work and continue to need us.
Not all of us can say the same: Dozens of my fellow workers passed away from Covid-19 complications, and a third of our union workforce were laid off when the pandemic struck and have been out of work for years. While I got to stay in my building, a lot of workers languished and struggled to make ends meet.
Since the commercial real estate industry has cut their labor costs, they shouldn’t skimp on individual workers, especially when we don’t clean vacant office space. We’re working hard jobs, not sitting around doing nothing. Our 20,000 members deserve the same dignity and respect that we’ve given our tenants, our buildings, and our buildings’ owners.
Inequality.org: Your contract will expire at the end of the year. What do you and your fellow union members hope to secure in your next contract?
Ena Softley: It’s simple. For one, we want a fair wage increase: Prices are going up and we should be able to meet them. And we love and must keep our healthcare. If my coworkers and I didn’t have reliable plans during Covid, we would have died. As we get older, healthcare and strong pensions will be all the more important.
Our contract negotiations started on November 9. We’ll do whatever we have to in order to win what we deserve.
We shouldn’t have to go on strike, to link arms around the buildings we love, shouting in the cold — but we’re prepared. We stand up for what we believe in. We’re proud workers.
Inequality.org: What’s your response to the fact that a select few Americans increased their wealth by more than a trillion dollars while so many people suffered over the last few years?
Ena Softley: It’s beyond disappointing that wealth grew so much here in the city — the nation’s most unequal and billionaire-friendly — while we struggle, suffer, and worry about our future ability to reside here. If cities want their downtowns to come back to life, the people who maintain office buildings need to be paid a decent wage with good health care.
Whatever you invest in us, we give back to you 100 percent: Our work and our word is our bond.
Bella DeVaan is a Program Associate at the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor of Inequality.org. You can follow her on Twitter @bdevaan.
Ena Softley is a senior worker at a skyscraper in Manhattan’s Times Square, a proud member of 32BJ SEIU, and a resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn.
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