Two Saturdays ago, I joined with over a thousand New England janitors, who packed into Boston's Converse Hall. The workers, who were three weeks into a contract bargaining campaign, voted overwhelmingly to authorize their leadership in Local 615 to call a strike if necessary.
At 2 AM on Monday morning, after four weeks of tough negotiating, campaigning in the streets and building support in the community, the bargaining committee reached a tentative agreement with the employers on a new four-year contract.
The campaign built support from a vast array of community organizations, faith and labor leaders, members of the business community, and elected officials. At the front of it all were the janitors themselves, who showed their solidarity and dignified determination to make their way into the American middle class.
According to none less than J.P. Morgan, 75 percent of the increase in corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 came by paying workers less or reducing their benefits.
We cannot afford to let that trend go unchecked--because if we do the middle class will disappear and we will become a country between two extremes: the very rich and the working poor.
The story of the New England janitors is a story of how we can buck the trend.
The janitors now have a tentative agreement on a new four-year contract that will convert a minimum of 680 jobs to full time positions and raise wages by 11.9 percent to $17.85 per hour by 2016 in downtown Boston, and up to 13 percent in other markets.
It will create a process to resolve workload issues, create a minimum working day of four hours, improve job security by eliminating probationary periods in situations when a building changes cleaning contractors, create a watchdog against unscrupulous contractors and provide janitors with a personal day, for the first time.
Ten years ago, New England janitors were making around $9 an hour, almost all were part time, they had no health care, and few benefits, no sick days, no vacation time and no voice. We set out to transform this industry ten years ago, and we have. Do we have farther to go? Absolutely, but this contract is another step along the road to good jobs for janitors.
We have got to move more workers into the middle class. There are too many workers in New England and across the U.S.A., who are making minimum wage and work in no benefit jobs - security officers, airport workers, food service workers who work hard but struggle just to get by.
Our job is to help organize, so those workers can make the same gains the New England janitors have made and will continue to make in the future. It is only by organizing that we will rebuild the middle class that powers the American economy and makes our nation great.