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Unionized Delaware cleaners secure new contract

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SEIU Local 32BJ march Delaware Wilmington cleaners janitors union

About 100 janitors represented by the SEIU Local 32BJ in northern Delaware marched in protest on Nov. 30 as their contract wound down. On Dec. 9, a new four-year contract was reached. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SEIU 32BJ

WILMINGTON – About 600 unionized cleaners in northern Delaware recently secured a new four-year contract that guarantees pay increases and protects them against displacements from building conversions.

Negotiated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, the largest property service workers union in the country with 175,000 members across the East Coast, the new contract comes just a few weeks before the current one was set to expire.

Workers organized a Nov. 30 protest march in downtown Wilmington amid its towering office buildings where many of them work, drawing the support of Wilmington-area State Sens. Sarah McBride and Tizzy Lockman. They had threatened to strike if a new contract was not agreed to by Dec. 31.

The contracts are not directly negotiated with landlords of major downtown buildings, such as Buccini/Pollin Group, but instead with an association of janitorial contractors who hire the workers and then secure contracts for office buildings at least 100,000 square feet or larger in size.

SEIU Local 32BJ march Delaware Wilmington cleaners janitors union

The new SEIU Local 32BJ contract covers about 600 workers in Delaware and 1,400 more outside Philadelphia. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SEIU 32BJ

The new contract, ratified by the union on Dec. 9, covers the 600 workers in Delaware as well as 1,400 more in suburban Philadelphia. Labor organizers noted that the majority of its workers are Black, Brown and/or immigrants who worked through the pandemic as essential employees necessary to keep workplaces sanitary.

Janitors currently earn starting wages of $15 an hour in Wilmington and $14.80 in New Castle County, with paid vacation, holidays, personal days, and a legal services fund. Full-time employees have access to employer paid health insurance.

The new contract guarantees a 20% wage increase by the end of the contract, the biggest wage increase in the workers’ bargaining history. It also protects full-time and part-time health benefits with no employee contribution, enhances pregnancy rights protections, adds Juneteenth as a paid holiday and protects workers who are displaced due to building renovations or conversions, according to the union.

“It’s a great feeling to know that the in times we are living in, we were able to win a contract that allows us to provide for our families and keep up with the cost of living,” Clarence Berry, Delaware 32BJ Cleaner and Bargaining Committee Member, said in a statement announcing the contract. “It took commitment and hard work. But at the end of the day, we came together to fight for a fair contract. We are one union, one fight and as long as we stay together, we’re going to stay strong.”

The new contract came after landlords allegedly sought a $3 an hour cut to starting wages for new hires and the loss of a week of vacation for workers with more than 25 years of tenure, the SEIU had alleged. Under the current contract, union members receive four weeks of paid vacation after 18 years of service.

Union leaders had decried those proposals, noting that thousands of cleaning jobs had already been lost after the pandemic and the current wages were not enough to meet the rising cost of living in the region.

“I’ve been a loyal employee for over 14 years, including risking my life during the pandemic to keep office buildings safe and sanitized,” Berry said. “With the wages I earn, I have to work a second job; but it’s still not enough. I work hard to keep my family safe and secure, but it’s very stressful to not have enough to provide for them. A fair contract with wage increases that actually keep up with the cost of living will allow me to not only help my family but also better my community.”

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