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Victory for Janitors in BC!

June 22, 2023
More than 2500 SEIU workers in BC have won significant gains in an historic fight. The workers have been jointly bargaining with 8 of Canada’s largest cleaning services fighting for much needed improvements in working conditions and wages. They have just ratified a new city-wide collective agreementthat lasts for 2 years. 
These workers, who clean everything from office buildings to shopping centres, post-secondary institutions and the Skytrain and transit system, came together to fight for an agreement that covers all the unionized workers in the region and provides better wages and job security. 
The new agreement has strong language against subcontracting, better health benefits  and a host of other improvements. 
“By standing together and voting to strike cleaners across the city have been taken seriously, We won wage increases that are above inflation. My co-workers are very happy with the results of the CBA, some of them will be receiving increases of $1.45 per hour.”
- Agnes Estimo who works at Best Service Pros at Metrotown and is on the Justice for Janitors Vancouver Branch Local Executive. spoke with Jorge Villatoro and Christine Bro, Organizers with SEIU local 2 to discuss this important development.

Let’s start with the process, How did this strategy of city wide central bargaining develop?

Christine: SEIU Local 2 across Canada has always had a strategy or organizing janitors across a sector to raise standards and engaging in city-wide central bargaining is how workers are able to achieve this goal. We already have master agreements in other major cities like Toronto and Ottawa. 
In terms of the Vancouver market, there was only one company that was organized with SEIU Local 2 in 2016 and that was GDI Integrated Facility Services. So, workers started to come together and organize company by company. The process entailed both organic organizing strategies and going through Labour Board elections (before card check was implemented in BC) as well as client leverage campaigns and sometimes a combination of both. 
The first major campaign that took off the ground was with Best Service Pros at five post-secondary institutions in BC. Following this major win, another big company - Alpine Building Maintenance organized in 2019, followed by Bee-Clean Building Maintenance from the end of 2019 throughout 2020, which is one of the largest cleaning contractors in Canada and the Vancouver market. This organizing started in 2017 and by December 2022, the majority of workers in the city were organized with SEIU and in a position to begin a process of city-wide bargaining.

What is the significance of the city-wide bargaining?

Jorge: The broad idea was to even the playing field. The property owners are looking to pick the cheapest contractor. In this industry, its based on a competitive bidding model. The power of the city-wide bargaining is that it ties even the smaller players to the same contract so now there is no underbidding going on.

If we have every contractor with the same basic agreement, we even the playing field so the workers - whenever they are negotiating - they will have the same standards throughout the city. You stabilize the market which also means workers are staying longer and it isn’t constantly changing or driving standards down through that competitive bidding.

Christine: In addition to that is how labour laws in BC have helped workers reach this process faster, which have been relatively pro-labour the last three years - the most significant for the Justice for Janitors campaign being the successorship legislation amended in May 2019 that provided protection for contracted cleaners. So, if down the line we have a change in government and they decide to attack workers rights, the majority of cleaners in this market will be under a master agreement that can be safeguarded from potential roll backs. Furthermore, by levelling out the playing field, if a client or property manager is looking for a cleaning contractor and invites 5 companies to bid at the worksite, it’s more likely that they will all be under the same collective agreement with SEIU.

Jorge: It just means that whatever laws the government may change it makes it more permanent. It also means we can push for more. In BC, we were part of the campaign to get 10 paid sick days but the government gave us 5 days so we fought to have these 5 days permanent in our contract so if that’s ever clawed back, we will have it secured through collective bargaining and it won’t be based on which government is elected.

The cost of living has been on the rise recently and many workers are bargaining for higher wages. How has the cost of living crisis impacted the demands put forward in bargaining?

Christine: Workers were definitely bargaining for higher wages that keep up with the increasing cost of living. Everyone is feeling the effect of inflation, but lower paid workers are definitely feeling it more and struggling to make ends meet. We did a survey of over 1500 members and the results clearly showed that wages was the number one priority for workers.

Jorge: It’s all about keeping up with the cost of living. The high cost of living is the number one thing that workers have been talking about. It is about catching up. In our current agreements we are about a dollar above minimum wage. Workers are looking to keep up with the cost of living and that isn’t enough.

Christine: Let’s also keep in mind that many of the janitors are some of the lowest wage workers in the city. A lot of them are racialized workers, some have to send money back home to support their families and most of them have two and sometimes three jobs just to survive. SEIU members worked through the pandemic and while the companies they worked for made a lot of money during the pandemic, at bargaining these same companies were being nit picky on non-monetary issues and were looking for concessions, which for the workers showed complete disrespect for their work.

Jorge: The members remember that they were called heroes who worked throughout the whole pandemic but the bosses won’t give them anything unless we bargain and fight together.

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