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Justice for Janitors Now

Stephanie W. Wang

It’s easy to take Boston and Cambridge for granted once one has been at MIT for a while because we always expect it to be there whenever we want to eat decent food, buy used books or CDs, or explore one of the countless options these cities have to offer. By the same token, we never expect the halls and classrooms of MIT to be any different each time we head to class. However, try to imagine the cities or our campus without janitors cleaning them every single day, often at hours when we have already gone through a few REM cycles.

It’s easy to forget about their hard work when they have never let us down with their dedication and have maintained a clean environment in which we can study, work, think, and play. Unfortunately, the building owners, of which MIT is a prominent one, and cleaning contractors in the Boston area have let the janitors down with low wages, a lack of opportunities for full-time work, and no benefits such as health care for most.

More than 10,000 janitors in the Boston area, which includes Cambridge, working in more than 1,000 buildings, are all under the same master contract as members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Over seventy-five percent of the janitors only have part-time work, which usually means four hours every night, and at a wage of about $10/hour, they are only able to earn around $40 every day. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the cost of renting a one- or two-bedroom in the area is on average around $1000-$1250 and that’s not even factoring in other basic amenities. Thus, with a cost of living that is one of the highest in the country, many of these janitors are forced to work multiple jobs to support their families. To add to the insult of struggling to provide for their families with long hours and tough work, since many have several jobs that are all part-time, they still have no health insurance if their children should happen to become ill.

You may suspect that this situation exists due to some economic sense or industry norm or special constraints that I have conveniently neglected to mention. However, I ask you: what economic sense is there in national building owners such as Equity Office, Metlife, and Boston Properties to pay higher wages in cities where rent is significantly lower? I ask you: are Boston janitors being paid the industry norm when janitors can earn $11.96 in Philadelphia, $12.20 in Chicago, $15.25 in San Francisco and up to $17.45 in New York?

One has to wonder if landlords such as Equity Office Properties, the largest one, and Boston Properties guarantee full-time work and health insurance to janitors in other cities but not in Boston simply because they have been able to get away with the greed thus far. After all, according to the SEIU, implementing all the demands proposed by the union would only constitute less than half of one percent of average building incomes. I hardly think that would qualify as a financial constraint for building owners who can command such high prices for hot Boston property.

You may ask, what does all of this have to do with MIT? After all, aren’t the janitors who are directly employed by MIT paid about $15/hour with good benefits? This may be true, but MIT also contracts out for more than one hundred janitors who are under this master contract. More importantly, MIT happens to be the largest commercial property owner in Cambridge, and in all the buildings that MIT owns, from Technology Square to University Park, the janitors who maintain them are also covered under this master contract.

So ask yourselves: does it make any sense that, while the janitors who work at MIT can earn $15/hour and have benefits such as health insurance, the janitors working part-time in a building owned by MIT down the street are making only $10/hour with no health insurance? MIT has a responsibility not only as an academic institution, but also as a building owner in this case, to uphold basic workers’ rights to a decent standard of living. MIT collects ever-increasing tuitions from its students and constantly asks for donations from alumni for “the evolving campus,” the research projects, and the expansions into Cambridge. What about the more than one hundred janitors working on campus who are under the master contract? Why are they not treated equally to the direct employees of MIT? Is MIT’s endowment so low that it is simply not feasible financially? It is time for MIT to recognize that the janitors who clean our campus and MIT-owned buildings are just as integral to the MIT community as any student or member of the faculty or staff.

The good news in this dismal situation is that janitors under the master contract, which is expiring at the end of August, are no longer going to accept these horrid conditions. They are standing up for a better life for themselves and their families. For the majority of janitors, who are immigrants, they have lived the American nightmare rather than the American dream. MIT must take a stand as the largest commercial property owner in Cambridge, just as the City Council of Boston, the Boston Globe, and countless other organizations and individuals have done, and tell those in negotiations with the SEIU that no opportunity to full-time work, no health insurance, and low wages for the more than 10,000 janitors simply aren’t acceptable.