February 29, 2024

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 stubborn high pricesher dollars don’t go as far as they used to.

Fair pay is just one of many things Vaughan and 30,000 other members of 32BJ SEIU, a union representing American commercial cleaning workers, negotiated 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 – voted to authorize a strike if they do not reach agreements with landlords and cleaning contractors by the time their contracts expire on December 31.

“The company didn’t offer a nickel… They didn’t offer anything. They want to take away what we have,” Vaughan said of her employer, ABM, one of the five largest facilities service contractors in talks with 32BJ SEIU. She told Quartz that after she and her colleagues put their lives on the line during the pandemic, they have yet to get what they deserve.

“We were put everything at risk by boarding the trains; I commuted to work,” Vaughan said, noting that she and her colleagues did not receive personal protective equipment and were given a “work overload” without extra compensation. “It is now time that the companies give us the essential workers, the wages we need.” Prudential Center and ABM did not immediately respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.

Strike while the iron is hot

32BJ SEIU is the largest union for building services workers in the US—representing more than 175,000 cleaners, maintenance personnel, food service workers, security officers and doormen across the country. This year it is campaigning for better contracts for 70,000 cleaners across the East Coast. So far, local chapters have reached agreements with employers in Pennsylvania, DC, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware.

In November, 20,000 New York City cleaning workers were in the union the first to authorize a strike. 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, hit the streets to draw attention to their cause. Vaughan was among those who marched.

Ederle Vaughan speaks to CBS News during a cleanup workers march on Dec. 13.

Ederle Vaughan speaks to CBS News during a cleanup workers march on Dec. 13.
Image: Jamal Dummett

Both contracts will expire at the end of the year. The union is asking for expanded benefits, further protections against sexual harassment, and a paid holiday June tenth in his negotiations for the 10,000 workers in the tri-state area. NYC cleaning staff demanded similar concessions.

If both sides do not reach agreements, the cleaning workers’ strikes will be the first in the industry since 1996.

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