D.C. labor and Occupy unite
looks at the ongoing fight of D.C. janitors in Washington, D.C., for a fair contract--and why their struggle is connecting to Occupy D.C. activists.
IF WALL Street has become the symbolic nerve center for greed and inequality, its political traffic merges onto K Street, Washington, D.C.'s Broadway for deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists.
But like Wall Street, K Street is now also home to activists who are fed up with a system that rewards the wealthy while delivering nothing but cuts to the rest of us. Part of the general Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread around the country, Occupy D.C. activists are camped out in MacPherson Square, where they are working to replicate the kind of protests that have rocked the streets of New York's financial district for the last month.
This week, K Street was also part of a march route for building cleaners fighting for a fair contract. The workers, who are preparing for a possible strike in the coming days, marched shoulder to shoulder with Occupy D.C. protesters.
With their contract expiring on October 15 at 12:01 a.m.--a deadline that was extended--members of SEIU 32BJ have voted to strike if a settlement is not reached. The union and other labor groups assembled at a park near MacPherson Square where they were joined by Occupy D.C. and other occupying protesters in the city.
Chanting "Sí, se puede" and "No contract, no peace," close to 500 workers and their Occupy protest supporters marched in the rain through downtown, wearing SEIU's signature purple shirts and hats. Activists from MacPherson Square wore union-tagged parkas as they marched with a banner that read "Occupy D.C."
The nearly 12,000 office cleaners who have been in contract negotiations since early September are fighting for fair raises, reasonable workload standards, and more full-time jobs with benefits. A large majority of the predominately Latino workforce is forced to work part-time, bringing home poverty wages and almost no benefits. Some workers make as little as $9 an hour. Many are expected to do the same amount of work in four hours with half the number of staff than they had only a few years ago.
Meanwhile, D.C.'s commercial real estate sector is thriving, with one of the strongest markets in the nation. Cleaning companies in the Washington Service Contractors Association have been pushing back against workers who are demanding a contract that reflects the rising cost of living in the area. The companies claim that current wages and other terms agreed to in the 2007 contract were reasonable before the onset of the Great Recession from which they say the industry is still recovering.
But for 32BJ and its members, such claims are belied by the fact that building owners are enjoying their most profitable year since the economic crisis hit.
According to the Washington Post, the chief executive of Boston Properties, one of the largest building owners in D.C., told analysts on a conference call in August that while the outlook for the economy in general "certainly doesn't look promising...what is relatively good are the commercial office buildings in major cities." One commercial real estate expert estimates that only 8 percent of operating costs for large building owners in D.C. goes toward cleaning services.
In other words, the large commercial building owners are not so different from the corporate titans and hedge fund managers on Wall Street sitting on trillions of dollars while teachers are being laid off and the poor are being kicked off of public assistance. Occupy protesters and the workers of 32BJ are demanding their fair share from the wealthy minority at the top.
And the janitors' fight extends far beyond Washington D.C. The struggle in the nation's capital is part of a larger 32BJ contract battle that involves some 60,000 building cleaners from Connecticut to Virginia. As one of SEIU's mega-locals, 32BJ affiliated with the national union as a result of the latter's "Justice for Janitors" campaign in the 1990s.
At Wednesday's protest, 32BJ Capitol Area Director Jaime Contreras affirmed that the workers are ready to strike if need be. He pointed to the rising cost of rent and transportation that workers face in the area and vowed to fight until a fair contract is won.
Speaking to the larger injustices that the janitors' struggle symbolizes, Contreras reminded workers and the Occupy protesters at their side that CEO pay went up 21 percent in 2010. "Something is wrong in America when 1 percent of the people own 33 percent of the wealth," he said. "We're not afraid of the bosses. We will fight to the end until we win a fair contract."
Others to address the workers included Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights community organization, and Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. City Councilmember Jim Graham spoke as well. He and the rest of the City Council have signed a pledge in support of the janitors.
THE CONVERGENCE of labor and the Occupy protesters at the action highlighted the fact that both groups are fighting against economic inequality and a system that puts the priorities of profit above the needs of people.
With workers and activists linking arms, organized labor and Occupy protesters in the nation's capital have an opportunity to put more muscle into the movement against corporate greed. Whether or not this solidarity can be sustained with the combination of labor and other left forces remains to be seen.
The wave of protest occupations against corporate greed that began on Wall Street has taken the country by storm. In cities across the U.S., masses of people are calling out Wall Street barons and the politicians in both parties who do their bidding. While the media and other establishment figures have at times been easily puzzled by the protesters' purpose, the reason for this organized expression of rage couldn't be more obvious.
People are coming together because workers and the poor--or "the 99 percent," as protesters call themselves--are suffering the effects of an economic crisis created by the same parasitic class at the top that continues to enjoy the spoils of its class war against the rest of society.
The accumulated anger produced by decades of class warfare against workers and the poor has found expression in this struggle--a struggle born in an age of bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich, home foreclosures, union-busting, record unemployment and merciless cuts to social spending.
That this movement has swept the country was not inevitable, but nor is it surprising. The support of the labor movement has undoubtedly helped attract wider layers of society into the struggle, including union members, the unemployed and the underemployed,
In New York, local unions like Transport Workers Union Local 100 and SEIU1199 threw their weight behind the protests. Along with the sympathy generated by unprovoked police violence against Occupy protesters, high-profile endorsements at the national level from the AFL-CIO and others propelled the Occupy Wall Street movement onto the stage of national politics.
In Washington, D.C., protesters have also received endorsements from a number of local unions. On October 12, the Occupy protesters marched to the National Labor Relations Board, calling for fairer labor laws, before joining Communication Workers of America (CWA) at a Verizon Wireless store--CWA members at Verizon are still stuck in contract negotiations with Verizon following their historic two-week strike on the East Coast involving 45,000 workers back in August.
The final stop for Occupy protesters on the labor march was the janitors' protest. There, activists expressed solidarity with the workers and invited the workers to join them in their occupation.
THIS WAS an important step in the local Occupy movement. Following the tense scene in Manhattan last week that concluded with a victory against the threatened eviction of protesters in Zuccotti Park, a new jolt of energy and determination fueled the movement in the lead-up to Saturday's global day of action.
In D.C., the day of action included a massive march and rally for jobs and justice led by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network, commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King at the site of the new national memorial built in his honor. Tens of thousands took to the streets in a mobilization that brought together labor, civil rights activists, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in D.C.
Efforts to put the thrust of organized labor behind the Occupy struggle in D.C. in the long term, however, are complicated by the fact that there are still two separate occupations in the city. One was planned months before the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged and began a few days after protesters in MacPherson Square--who are more directly tied to the Occupy Wall Street movement--started their occupation.
The hundreds who have been camping out in Freedom Plaza in what is called the "Stop the Machine" occupation present a longer list of issues and demands than Occupy D.C. protesters have raised, including antiwar and environmental justice demands. Both Stop the Machine in Freedom Plaza and Occupy D.C. in MacPherson Square have been mutually supportive of each other, but there are also signs of tension. Efforts on both ends to merge the two occupations have been met with resistance, especially in MacPherson Square.
This division has been a source of frustration for some who argue that it will be difficult for D.C. labor and other groups to unify with a struggle that is itself divided. As Clara Castillo, a rank-and-file member of 32BJ said on Wednesday, "We are stronger united--that's why we are here."
That's as true for the Occupy movement as it is for the janitors. The looming prospect of a walkout among janitors will be an important test for the local movement as the level of strike solidarity among protesters will help determine if broader forces can be brought into the struggle.
That solidarity would also underscore the need for unity among the protesters and the instrumental role that the organized working-class can play in the larger fight against the injustices trafficked by Wall Street and K Street.
First published at Subterranean Dispatches.