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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 31, 2012, 9:00 am

City Janitors Are Latest To Feel Sting of Emanuel’s Cost-Cutting

BY Kari Lydersen

Pam Broughton speaks at a rally outside Chicago City Hall, two months after losing her janitorial position when a new city contractor took over.   (Kari Lydersen)

CHICAGO—Pam Broughton worked for eight years as a janitor at the Fifth District police station on the city's far south side. As of this spring she was making $15.45 an hour with benefits. But then as a cost-cutting measure, the city accepted a bid from a different contractor that offered to clean the station more cheaply than Nationwide Maintenance, the contracting company that employed Broughton.

The new company, Dayspring Janitorial Services, told workers that if they wanted to keep their jobs they would have to agree to $12 an hour, no benefits and more part-time work, Broughton says. She said the workers, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, accepted the conditions “because we needed jobs.”

Even so, Broughton’s last day of work was June 29.

Broughton says she never got a straight answer from the city or Dayspring about whether she would be able to keep her job. About 50 union janitors were laid off as the city granted contracts to Dayspring to clean south side police stations, health clinics, senior centers and administrative satellite offices. Others were rehired by Dayspring, but will see their pay drop from $24,100 to $31,000 a year currently, depending on their seniority, to a maximum of $23,800 per year with Dayspring.  It is also unclear whether the rehired workers will have health insurance; the union said Dayspring is still negotiating with the city on this point. Many of those laid off had been in their jobs for decades.

Broughton and seven other janitors at the fifth district station were laid off despite a letter from Station Commander Patricia Walsh saying they were “dependable and conscientious in fulfilling their daily responsibilities…also very responsive to the special maintenance requests and cleaning needs of the 5th District personnel.”

Union leaders say the janitors’ situation shows how the city bidding system lends itself to union-busting. Hence Broughton and other janitors and supporters rallied at Chicago City Hall on Wednesday to demand that the city council hold a hearing on the Responsible Bidders Ordinance, which would mandate contractors doing business with the city prove that they have not violated federal or state labor law and that they are paying the prevailing industry wage.

They note that Dayspring has a history of alleged and proven labor law violations under past county contracts, including citations from the National Labor Relations Board for “intimidating, coercing, discriminating and illegally terminating its employees in order to prevent them from speaking with and joining a union,” as summed up in a union press release. (The NLRB settled with Dayspring on those charges.) Dayspring was also charged with violating state policy by not paying prevailing wage rates while working under a 2007 contract cleaning county health clinics. The company paid $11.15 per hour, while prevailing wage was set at $11.40 for new employees and up to $14.80 for longer-term workers.

“For eight months we were corresponding with the city about Dayspring’s record,” says SEIU spokesperson Izabela Miltko “Either a) they made a huge mistake or b) they sought out this contractor ultimately looking to get rid of the union.”

The ordinance would apply to all contracts over $50,000 for window-washing, security and janitorial services, and would require companies pay a prevailing wage, comply with labor law and carry workers compensation and other crucial insurance. It would disqualify companies with past labor law violations or multiple violations of the prevailing wage standard. It would also mandate that no existing employees be replaced by a new contractor during a 45-day transition period; and if people are laid off during this period, it must be done on the basis of seniority.

The ordinance has the support of 31 out of the city’s 50 aldermen, according to the union, but it needs to be called for a committee hearing in order to go to a full Council vote. So far that has not happened, and the way things go in Chicago it also needs the mayor’s support.

“We’ll deliver our message to Mr. Emanuel, we’ll tell him to look for savings elsewhere, not in our pockets because our pockets are almost empty,” says Ewa Miklewicz, a janitor and union member for more than three decades.

Unions see the ordinance as especially important as the city is under intense budget pressure and expected to privatize more city services, meaning more contractors will be hired. Currently union janitors at the city’s two airports are also worried about losing their jobs. A contract for janitorial services at O’Hare International airport recently expired and a leading bid by the company United Maintenance Company Inc. would reportedly mean about 340 SEIU Local 1 janitors lose their jobs. Union president Tom Balanoff told the Chicago Tribune that company officials told him they would hire their own, likely non-union workers.

“Every time you look up, a little part of the city workforce has been chopped away,” says Charles Brown, a former police officer who lives in the Englewood neighborhood on the city’s south side and who attended the janitors’ rally. “Chicago has a wonderful tradition of valuing hard work. Public contractors should not be leading the race to the bottom, the public workforce should set the standards…These (janitors) had good jobs and they were nice ladies and gentlemen. This irresponsible company hired replacement workers and didn’t honor the terms of their contract. And so far the city hasn’t done a D-A-M-N thing.”

The union charges that based on their research, even with the low wages, Dayspring will not be able to fulfill the terms it promised the city in its bid. The union says the company also didn’t follow the law in considering prevailing wages in its bid proposal. On June 8 the union filed a Freedom of Information Act with the city for documents related to the bid. Though FOIAs must legally be answered within seven working days, the union says they have still received no response.

“It’s obvious Mayor Emanuel is not going to do the right thing on his own, so we have to push him,” says organizer Laura Garza.

The letter to the mayor cited the plight of Catalina Bojorquez, a janitor for three years at the city’s 63rd Street police station who lost her job and her health insurance with the contract switch. She recently discovered she has an ovarian tumor and may need surgery.

Broughton is now surviving on $167 a month in disability payments—or barely surviving, since she has diabetes and no health insurance.

“We’re asking the mayor to pass this ordinance so I can get my job back,” she told the crowd outside city hall. “I like my job.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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