Justice for Janitors


In 2003, a national movement for and with janitorial workers was winning victories across the country. In DC, most janitorial workers were working four- or five-hour shifts per night. Few had health benefits and none were unionized.

“It was unheard of that they would get health care benefits of any kind,” says Maria Naranjo of SEIU 32BJ. “People thought we were nuts for even talking about it at the bargaining table.” But workers knew they deserved benefits and were willing to fight for them.

Together with our partners, DC Jobs with Justice took action. Our coalition brought in a giant ice sculpture of a heart to the lobby of a building where janitors worked without benefits. We delivered it to the building management, calling out their “frozen heart” for refusing to provide health benefits to janitorial workers.

Ultimately the campaign won significant benefits for workers, including a strong union contract. In the years since, janitors have been at the forefront of the fight for DC’s $15 minimum wage, paid sick and family leave, and sanctuary city status. These landmark pieces of legislation were achieved thanks in no small part to janitors, who helped create the “Fight for $15” rallying cry and eventually make it a household name. 

When union janitors improve their jobs, we all benefit from the ripple effects: increased spending on local businesses, lower rates of reliance on public programs and an increase in tax revenue. Janitors are narrowing DC’s shamefully wide income gap and rebuilding our disappearing middle class by fighting for the wages and benefits that will lift them out of poverty.

Written by Martin Thomas

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