Ederle Vaughan, 48, has worked as a cleaner at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for 16 years. She lives paycheck to paycheck, using those wages for her daughter’s college tuition as well as her own groceries and rent. With stubbornly high prices, her dollars don’t go as far as they used to.
Fair pay is just one of many things that Vaughan and 30,000 other members of 32BJ SEIU, a union representing US commercial cleaning workers, have been bargaining with employers to include in their new contracts. These union members in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut—most of whom are people of color and immigrants like Vaughan, who is from Guyana—have said they will strike if they don’t reach agreements with landlords and cleaning contractors by the time their contracts expire on Dec. 31.
“The company hasn’t offered not a nickel…They haven’t offered anything. They want to take away what we have,” Vaughan said of her employer, ABM, one of the five largest facilities services contractors in talks with 32BJ SEIU. She told Quartz that after she and her coworkers put their lives on the line during the pandemic, they still have yet to get what they deserve.
“We were risking everything by getting on the trains; I commuted in to work,” Vaughan said, noting that she and her coworkers didn’t receive personal protective equipment and were given a “work overload” without extra compensation. “Now it’s time for the companies to give us, the essential workers, the wages that we need.” Prudential Center and ABM didn’t immediately respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.
Striking while the iron is hot
32BJ SEIU is the largest building service workers union in the US—representing more than 175,000 cleaners, maintenance staff, food service workers, security officers, and door attendants throughout the country. It’s been campaigning for better contracts for 70,000 cleaners across the East Coast this year. So far, local chapters have reached agreements with employers in Pennsylvania, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware.
In November, 20,000 New York City cleaning workers in the union were the first to vow to strike, though they will officially vote to authorize a strike Wednesday (Dec. 20). 32BJ SEIU chapters in Fairfield County, Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey representing 10,000 employees—who are part of a separate negotiation—followed suit in December, taking to the streets to draw attention to their cause. Vaughan was among those who marched.
Both contracts are set to expire at the end of the year. The union is asking for expanded benefits, further protections against sexual harassment, and a paid holiday on Juneteenth in its negotiations for the 10,000 workers in the tri-state area. NYC cleaning staff have demanded similar concessions.
If both sides don’t reach agreements, the cleaning workers’ strikes would be the first in the industry since 1996.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that 20,000 NYC cleaning workers had authorized a strike in November. They vowed to strike, but an official vote to authorize a strike will occur Dec. 20.