Seeking Union Rights, GE Janitors March on Labor Day

Kari Lydersen

Janitors at GE's Lynn, Mass. plant went on strike for one day in June over unpaid overtime and other violations.

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Janitors working for GE at its Lynn, Mass. aircraft parts plant earn $24 an hour and have 401k and health benefits. That’s because they are members of the IUE-CWA.

About 40 other janitors at the plant earn only $8 to $10 an hour with no benefits except one paid sick day. That’s because they are hired by a contractor, Complete Cleaning, and are not unionized.

Members of the 1,800-strong IUE-CWA at the GE plant will march in Cambridge on Labor Day along with the non-union janitors who since March have been trying to unionize with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615.

Immediately there was harassment and workers were fired,” said Roxana Rivera, commercial division director of SEIU Local 615, which has filed Unfair Labor Practices charges related to alleged unpaid overtime and other wage-hour violations.

On June 27 workers held a one-day strike over the unfair labor practice charges. Antonia Chun, who was fired after 12 years as a janitor at the plant, said in a statement:

After all these years of hard work, I was still making eight dollars an hour with no benefits. When the manager fired me, he said, This is because you support the union.’ We are on strike because we will no longer be treated like the trash we clean.

Over the years janitors and other workers employed directly by GE have been laid off due to offshoring and automation, said IUE-CWA Local 201 president Jeff Crosby, and the IUE-CWA members see the non-union janitors’ campaign as part of a unified struggle to protect workers rights at the plant.

These are people we’ve been working with for years, we know them and we know they are good workers,” said Crosby. 

He said the struggle is both one on principle for all workers’ rights and also specifically to protect the remaining GE workers.

I can’t be making $24 and having someone four feet away making $9 an hour. The market just doesn’t work that way…they’re going to the lowest bidder.”

In terms of the pay and working conditions for the non-union janitors and the about eight remaining janitors employed directly by GE, he said, there’s no comparison.”

SEIU Local 615 represents janitors at public and private facilities nationwide including many with contracting services and a total of 14,000 in New England. The local is also currently organizing janitors at a GE plant in New Hampshire. IUE, now affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), was formed in 1949 after its predecessor, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), was kicked out of the CIO as part of an anti-Communist purge. The UE represents many GE workers in New England.

Rivera said that in contrast to their months-long anti-union campaign, now Complete Cleaning officials say they are willing to recognize a union. But the contract they have with GE would not allow them to pay living wages and offer benefits, they say. That’s why the march today and the campaign in general is targeted primarily at GE, whose CEO Jeffrey Immelt earned $21.4 million in compensation last year, according to the union. 

After President Obama named Immelt his jobs czar,” critics pointed out Immelt’s history of outsourcing and other questionable labor practices and priorities.

In a letter to Immelt, Rivera wrote:

Providing workers a living wage and health care is essential in order for a company to be a responsible contractor. Responsible contractors have raised the standards of the cleaning industry in Massachusetts, and their responsible conduct has ensured that thousands of jobs in the contracted janitorial industry are not poverty wage jobs, but good jobs that help workers to provide a better future for their families. 

The letter to Immelt included the story of Remigeo Martinez, a Dominican immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1968 and has been working as a janitor at GE for 16 years, earning $8.50 an hour without benefits.

He has four children and one grandchild, three of which live with him and his wife. Remigio also sends money when he can to support his son who is studying to be a priest in the Dominican Republic as well as his sister. Remigio admits, It is hard to pay bills, and money is tight here.”…Remigeo describes his week at work as,” some days I mop the floors, every day I take out the trash. It is honest work.”

The march also celebrates SEIU Local 615’s campaign to organize janitors at Harvard University. The march begins at Cambridge City Hall at 10am and proceeds to the Cambridge Common, with speakers beginning at 11:30am including workers and Greater Boston Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Rich Rogers and Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray. 

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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