Commuters traveling in Tysons Corner around rush hour on June 6 were greeted by the sight of about two dozen protestors marching through the streets behind a banner with the slogan “Good jobs, strong communities.”
The same slogan printed in both English and Spanish adorned yellow and purple signs that the marchers hoisted above their heads while yelling various chants, such as “No justice, no peace” or “Hey, hey, ho, ho, union busters got to go.”
Organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the rally was a show of support for cleaning and custodial workers in preparation for Justice for Janitors Day, an occasion that SEIU marks every June 15 to commemorate a 1990 demonstration in Los Angeles, Calif., that saw police clash with 400 janitors on strike, culminating in injuries and arrests.
For members of 32BJ SEIU’s Capital Area District, which encompasses Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., this year’s Justice for Janitors Day activities also serve a more immediate purpose, as the union protests the commercial cleaning company K&S Management and Supply for worker conditions that it says are unfair.
“They are the largest non-union company in Northern Virginia, so our focus is going to be them,” 32BJ SEIU Vice President Jaime Contreras, who heads the union’s capital area district, said. “They should also do what the other companies are doing, which is providing decent wages and benefits and dignity and respect on the job for the janitors that work in their buildings.”
According to SEIU, K&S has harassed and interrogated workers who attempt to organize, but the firing of a cleaner at the Pinnacle Towers in Tysons served as the primary inciting incident for its ongoing protest of the company.
Tysons resident Geofredo Castro began working as a cleaner for K&S in the fall of 2018.
K&S assigns cleaners excessive amounts of work that they are unable to complete in the time they are allotted, and they receive no paid days off for either sick days or personal leave, according to Castro.
When Castro started meeting with 32BJ SEIU and distributing a petition for unionization to coworkers, K&S fired him.
SEIU filed an unfair labor practices complaint against K&S with the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 10, arguing that Castro’s termination violated the National Labor Relations Act. An amended charge letter submitted on Jan. 18 alleges that the company also interrogated and threatened to discharge employees for engaging in protected activities.
While the company denied the charges, K&S ultimately agreed to a settlement on May 6 that required it to give Castro $1,500 in back pay, offer him a full and immediate reinstatement to his old job, and expunge any reference to his discharge from its records.
Castro says he now has a new job with a company where workers are unionized, but he attended SEIU’s rally in Tysons on June 6 to show solidarity with his former coworkers.
“I’d like to tell them to treat their workers right and to give their workers what they deserve, like days off and paid sick days and holidays,” Castro said.
In a statement, K&S Management said that it respects its employees and their right to engage in concerted activity. “However, as far as K&S is aware, no petition has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board to initiate the process for voting in which the employees are given the opportunity to participate in a free and fair election to determine if they want to be represented by the union,” K&S said. “K&S has voluntarily agreed to take steps to ensure that the employees’ rights are protected.”
The company declined to comment further when asked by the Fairfax County Times to elaborate on what steps it has undertaken to protect employee rights.
K&S is also currently under investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for a sexual harassment complaint filed by a janitor who works at an office building that the company contracts with.
In the complaint, which was submitted on Jan. 4 through the D.C. city government, the employee says her supervisor retaliated after she rejected his repeated sexual advances by criticizing her and making it more difficult for her to do her job.
K&S said it is unable to comment on any specific charges filed by individual employees.
“K&S takes charges of sexual harassment seriously and strives to provide an environment that is safe and provides equal opportunities for all employees,” the company said in a statement. “We try to prevent sexual harassment, and if claims of harassment are made, we will investigate and take appropriate action.”
While K&S employees are not part of the union, SEIU represents about 11,000 janitorial workers in the D.C. metropolitan area, including more than 5,500 who work in Northern Virginia.
With its current contract set to expire on Oct. 15, the union is gearing up to begin negotiations on a new four-year contract for the 130,000 commercial cleaners that it represents nationwide.
“This is just one of very many activities that we’re going to be doing in the future to call attention to the plight of janitors, but also the plight of immigrant workers and workers of color,” Contreras said of the K&S protest, which ended outside the building where Castro worked before he was fired.
Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36th) and Fairfax County School Board Providence District representative Dalia Palchik both spoke at the rally to show their support for the workers represented by the union.
The Fairfax County Public Schools Fiscal Year 2020 budget approved by the school board on May 23 included an additional $81 million for employee compensation, funds that will let the school system establish a $15.50 minimum wage for hourly employees, among other uses.
As the first step in a multi-year plan to improve FCPS’s salary scales, the new FY 2020 rate will primarily affect food and service workers as well as some janitorial and cleaning staff members, Palchik says.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also approved a higher minimum wage for county government employees, adopting an FY 2020 budget on May 7 that raised minimum hourly wages from $14.83 to $15.14.
Palchik, who won the recent June 11 primary to represent Providence District on the Board of Supervisors, says that private companies who choose to locate in Fairfax County need to follow the county’s lead by raising wages so that their employees can live where they work.
“In our community, we want to attract and grow businesses and diversify our economy, but we have to make sure that those employers are playing well, that they’re taking care of their own employees,” Palchik said. “…We need to make sure that everyone gets a gets a fair shot and that all of the funds in the economy that come in really are supporting everyone in our community.”