Providence Janitors Launch Drive to Unionize

WARWICK, R.I. - Janitors at T.F. Green Airport are launching a major push to improve wages and benefits at Rhode Island's main airport.

The workers have signed union cards and enlisted the Service Employees International Union to help lobby the state Airport Corporation to support better pay. Earlier this month, they flooded the corporation's board meeting to plead their case.

But the campaign is complicated by the fact that the airport subcontracts its janitorial work to UNICCO, a maintenance company that employs the workers. Given intense market competition, lobbying the middle man for better pay and benefits is not always an effective tactic, said SEIU Local 615 representative Roxana Rivera. It is difficult to change middle-man policies without the support of corporations like the airport.

Nationwide, industry standards for janitors are typically low - wages are meager and health insurance is rare. In Rhode Island, only contracted janitors in Providence have a collective bargaining agreement. If a company such as UNICCO were to agree to offer their workers better pay and benefits, Rivera speculated, they would stand to lose the air port contract to a lower bidder when the contract expires this fall.

So the SEIU is lobbying the Airport Corporation to improve standards from the top down, pressing for officials to include contract language stipulating that any company wishing to offer janitorial services at the airport must pay its workers a living wage and offer health insurance and a degree of job stability. In other words, the union is asking airport officials to invest more in janitorial services.

"We understand that they are contracting out the work, but ultimately, it's the client that hires and fires the contractor, and in the end, that means the client needs to ensure that certain standards are kept," Rivera said.

SEIU State Council Director Patrick Quinn said the airport is a logical place to focus union efforts on what has emerged as a statewide problem. The airport is "an economic engine" for the state, meaning it can serve as a model for better business practices, he said. And in light of aviation security concerns in the post-9/11 era, airports, more than most places, need a stable, consistent work force.

"Plus, we want people who come to Rhode Island to have a good first impression when they arrive at the airport," Quinn said.

He cited policy changes at California's San Jose International Airport and Bradley International Airport in Connecticut as evidence that it is possible to improve working standards for airport janitors.

At T.F. Green, the average pay for janitors is between $8 and $9 an hour. Most employees receive no health insurance or a plan that is not worth the cost, Rivera said.

Celeste Ramos is one of those workers.

Ramos, a single mother, came to the United States 10 years ago from Cape Verde armed with a dream that her young daughter could one day go to college. For three years now, she's worked as a contracted janitor at T.F. Green while her daughter attends Rhode Island College.

After paying her rent each month, Ramos has just $200 left over to pay her bills, put food on the table and send her daughter to college. It's not unusual for Ramos to cut back on food expenses. When her daughter suffered dental problems last year, she had to leave school for two semesters to save up enough money to pay for treatment.

Sharing her story with the Airport Corporation board recently, Ramos dissolved in tears. She was not alone. Other workers who packed the meeting had similar tales, laced with similar sacrifices. All said they enjoyed working at the airport; they'd just like to be paid more to do so.

Patti Goldstein, the corporation spokeswoman and vice president of air service marketing, said the independent state agency plans to discuss the wage issue but has not yet done so. "They provided us with information at the board meeting and presently what they gave the board is under advisement, but there's nothing at this point that we can respond to because it is under advisement. We appreciate that they came and were able to present their concerns," Goldstein said.

She said she did not know the status of contract negotiations between the airport and UNICCO.

A UNICCO representative did not return a call for comment yesterday.

Rivera emphasized that she has no expectations of immediate change. "This is the first time we have approached the airport on this issue. In all fairness, we need to give them a chance to consider this," she said. "It is a change on some level from how they've done business in the past, so we want to give them a chance to consider what's been put before them."

In recent years, the push to improve conditions for janitors has gained traction both across the country and in Rhode Island. "Justice for Janitors," the SEIU's national campaign for janitors, has made headlines in a variety of states, including this one.

On Thursday, the SEIU will step up its local campaign, holding a two-day walk from Woonsocket to East Providence. The "Pilgrimage for Prosperity and Promise" will include janitors and community supporters walking to promote the idea of fair wages and the promise of a good life, Rivera said.

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