Economy

After Cleaning Throughout Pandemic, Local Janitors Unionize

Janitors who work for commercial cleaning contractors throughout South Florida prepare for their first union bargaining session.
Janitors who work for commercial cleaning contractors throughout South Florida prepare for their first union bargaining session. Photo by Joshua Ceballos
In the auditorium of a 70-year-old union hall in the City of Miami, dozens of janitors from Miami-Dade and Broward counties gathered to celebrate a historic victory on Monday: Beginning this week, more than 1,000 janitorial workers will begin the process of negotiating for better working conditions, now that 12 cleaning contractors who work at 112 commercial buildings across South Florida have agreed to recognize the workers union.

Between speeches from union organizers and pep talks from elected officials who supported the union drive came chants of "Sí se puede!" and "When we fight, we win!"

It had been a long road to get here.

The janitors have been working for more than two years with the help of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 32BJ under SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign to convince their employers to voluntarily recognize their right to unionize and to negotiate with them for better working conditions. For years, contractors resisted their employees' attempts to unionize, even as janitors rallied and protested what they saw as unfair treatment. Among their chief concerns: wages, paid sick leave, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Gregory Herron, a 32-year-old janitor from Fort Lauderdale, joined the union effort and quickly became one of its lead organizers. Herron works six nights a week to help provide for his six children, at three jobs including his janitorial gig at the Las Olas City Centre. He tells New Times he became involved in the union's leadership to raise wages so he and his coworkers wouldn't have to work exhaustive hours.

"When you got a calling, when you know you're supposed to do something, it just happens," Herron says.

The janitors also plan to negotiate for better time-off policies, beginning with basic paid sick leave, which many cleaning contractors don't offer. Many of the service workers employed by commercial cleaning contractors say staying home sick has not been an option because it meant no paycheck, even during the pandemic.

In June of 2020, near the outset of lockdowns for COVID-19, when cleaning services were deemed "essential" to combat the spread of the virus, janitors protested outside MiamiCentral station to demand sick leave and PPE. Workers claimed they weren't given enough facemasks and received thin gloves that were prone to tearing.

In February, SEIU-led janitors who worked at the Miami Tower went on a three-day strike and marched through the streets, alleging that their employers retaliated against them for their union advocacy. The strike also followed an OSHA citation issued to their employer, cleaning contractor SFM Janitorial Services, for its alleged failure to provide PPE and for not warning or offering medical treatment after the company used cleaning mist with potentially hazardous chemicals in an office space.

After the February strike,  janitors like Elsa Romero feared their bosses weren't going to let them go back to work. That's when Florida State Sen. Jason Pizzo — who attended Monday's celebration with Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime — called and emailed their employers to make sure the janitors kept their jobs.

Romero has been at the forefront of the union effort for years. She says she is glad she and her fellow workers will finally have a chance to sit at the table with their employers and negotiate on a level playing field.

"I am very happy and proud. I hope that we will get better benefits and better salaries. The salaries we've been getting are not dignified, and it's been very difficult for me and my family," Romero tells New Times in Spanish.

Her previous employer, SFM, paid Romero $9 an hour. A new cleaning contractor that has taken over her workplace at the Miami Tower pays $10 per hour. Romero, who lives with her daughter, has diabetes and needs insulin.

Today, the janitors will have their first contract-bargaining session with their employers' management teams — a process they've been training for with SEIU representatives.

"There's a lot of courageous actions by these humble, hardworking people. They didn't know the experience our union has had in other cities, they just took a chance," says Helene O’Brien, Florida director for SEIU 32BJ. "These are the folks who in the past no one ever thought about. They were invisible. Now they're united."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos