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Properties Owned By MIT Affected by Janitors’ Strike

By Kevin R. Lang


MIT students will join marchers throughout Boston Thursday in support of more than 10,000 striking janitors, including employees at MIT’s University Park and Technology Square developments.

Many of the custodial workers affected by the strike work for UNICCO, a facilities management company based in Newton, Mass. On Oct. 3, demonstrators on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue were addressed by MIT spokesman Kenneth D. Campbell, who said that MIT did not directly employ UNICCO workers. However, Forest City Enterprises, which leases University Park from MIT, employs UNICCO custodians for “much of the cleaning at University Park,” according to MIT.

President Charles M. Vest issued a statement through Campbell, saying, “We are supportive of workers’ needs for health benefits and fair wages. All custodians working on the MIT campus have health care benefits and all MIT employees are paid fairly.”

Impact on University Park unclear

Stephen Sattler, of Forest City marketing and communications, said he was unable to determine how many UNICCO employees worked at University Park, but he that the strike did not seem to be hurting the development.

“I don’t know that it has affected it too terribly badly,” Sattler said. “There doesn’t seem to be mountains of trash outside our waste baskets.”

Sattler said that Forest City had been in contact with both UNICCO and the Service Employees International Union Local 254, but the company was not actively pressuring UNICCO to settle the strike.

“We firmly support any efforts that would broker a just and equitable resolution to this issue,” Sattler said.

At least one major developer, State Street Corp., sent a letter to UNICCO on Oct. 15 indicating that UNICCO’s contract was at risk unless the strike was resolved soon. In addition, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) sent a letter to federal agencies asking them to pressure UNICCO to settle the strike, and the National Labor Relations Board has issued complaints against both UNICCO and Janitronics.

UNICCO representatives did not return calls seeking comment regarding any possible contact by MIT or Forest City. Campbell said he was unaware of any such efforts by MIT.

Students push for changes at MIT

Stephanie W. Wang ’04, the MIT representative for the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), is among the students in the Boston area coordinating activities Thursday with students from Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, Tufts, and other schools.

Wang said that no direct action at MIT had yet been planned for Thursday, but that she was “pretty sure there should be something going on in Cambridge since there are a lot of buildings in Cambridge that are covered under the master contract.”

Wang and other students have been in contact with Kirk D. Kolenbrander, special assistant to the president and chancellor, about MIT’s position on the custodial workers. Wang said that she was not satisfied with Vest’s statement, calling it “empty.”

She and others want MIT to require its own custodial contractors to sign the interim agreement reached between the SEIU Local 254 and some of the involved contractors.

“I think [Kolenbrander is] still open to further discussion,” Wang said. “It’s very frustrating in that it’s a very time-sensitive issue.”

Kolenbrander said he had not yet heard of Wang’s request for MIT to meet the interim agreement, but that he would “be interested in hearing it.”

“I’ve asked Stephanie and her colleagues for some additional information,” he said.

Kolenbrander said he did not know if Vest’s support of fair labor standards for janitors meant that MIT would hold its lessees to the same standard. “I think that is a reasonable question for the MIT community to debate,” Kolenbrander said.

He reiterated Vest’s statement that MIT provides its own janitors with adequate wages and benefits. “MIT is taking the most direct action it has by providing its employees a fair wage and benefits package,” he said.

Pressure builds as strike continues

Members of the SEIU Local 254, a branch of the AFL/CIO, have been on strike since Sept. 30 after contract negotiations stalled. The two major employers affected by the strike are UNICCO and Janitronics, Inc., who along with smaller contractors provide custodial services to nearly 100 major buildings in the Boston area, according to the union.

While temporary agreements have been reached with several smaller firms, UNICCO and the SEIU have clashed quite publicly in the past few weeks. UNICCO has been placing advertisements calling the strike “a war of words filled with misinformation, innuendo and in some cases false and misleading statements.”

The SEIU Local 254 is fighting for higher wages and health care benefits, which are often denied to janitors who are considered part-time employees. The SEIU contends that janitors “are paid as little as $39 a day. Because their salaries are so low and they are given only four hours of work each night, most janitors are forced to work two or three jobs to provide for their family.”

According to SLAP, MIT janitors are currently paid $14.80 per hour, which ranks the Institute’s wages as one of the highest among Boston-area universities.