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Labor Day Follies
Tim Francis-Wright

On this Labor Day, nothing exemplifies the plight of the labor movement better than the juxtaposition in Boston of two potential strikes. The first, which received huge amounts of press coverage before, during, and after the announced strike date, was the strike planned by the players on the Boston Red sox and other Major League Baseball clubs. The second, which has received far less attention, is the strike planned by 10,000 janitors and maintenance workers in Boston's office buildings.

While Boston has notoriously faithful and long-suffering baseball fans, a baseball strike would have an immediate effect on the livelihood of very few. The Red Sox have 25 players and not very many employees. However, the members of SEIU local 254 work in over 1,000 buildings in Boston and its suburbs. Through its "Justice for Janitors" campaign, the SEIU plans to choose its targets carefully, so not every building would be affected on any particular day of a strike. But the impact on those buildings could be huge, because unions such as the Teamsters have vowed not to cross picket lines.

The electronic and print media throughout the United States devoted much time and space to the impending baseball strike, in part because labor negotiations in professional sports occur at the nexus of sports and business. The issues at hand were complex, and the media, at least in Boston, addressed those issues. Many issues were far from trifling—what teams could freely spend on salaries, what level of revenue sharing would occur, what sort of drug testing regimen would exist. The Boston Globe even put a countdown clock on its web site as the first game of 29 August drew near.

The impending janitors' strike has received far less attention, and not just because newspapers lack Sanitation sections to go with the sports pages. The real estate sections of the Boston Globe are chock full of advertisements and bits of news of new developments, but pay short shrift to the workers who keep commercial real estate going.

To be fair to the Globe, the paper has supported the janitors in its editorials. It has also printed a recent positive story about the union's demands for health insurance, higher wages, and more full-time work. But the day-to-day coverage of the negotiations pales with the paper's intense coverage of the baseball negotiations.

Certainly, the possible baseball strike offered the media a host of interesting angles into the world of baseball. After all, baseball owners have cried poor for years, yet baseball franchises are immensely valuable (the Red Sox current owners bought the team for $700 million). It is hard to fault anyone for being cynical about the salaries, perks, and benefits that baseball players enjoy. Even the players themselves have an odd sense of solidarity: a few players earn $20 million per season, yet many earn $200,000 per year in a job with neither long-term security nor good pay in the minor leagues.

The janitors, however, should provide material for a host of informative and incisive articles and segments of their own. For years, wages and benefits for union janitors in Boston have lagged behind what their counterparts in other cities have won. At least some of the discrepancy is due to chronically calcified leadership in the Boston local, leadership that the SEIU national has replaced. The janitors are fighting against immensely powerful owners, the investment trusts, insurance companies, and pension funds that own much of Boston's real estate. Even though the Boston real estate market has boomed for over a decade, most Boston janitors earn $9.95 an hour, part-time, without benefits. Even the full-time workers earn only $10.20 per hour and cannot get health insurance for their families. And they are the lucky ones with a union contract.

The Boston market for office space is so robust now that in the past two years, developers have received financing for two huge new buildings 33 Arch Street and One Lincoln Street. Not only was each developed "on spec," to meet general market demand, but in each case the developer spent the extra money to buy and demolish an existing parking garage. Neither of these buildings will be inexpensive to build, but when rents for most downtown office space are over $40 per square foot per year, the owners can afford it.

Ultimately, the potential janitors' strike comes down to money. Will the building owners and their management agents give just a tiny extra fraction of their rents to the janitors who keep the offices clean? The resolution of this question may matter more in the long run to Boston than anything that the Red Sox might ever do.

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