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Union workers take to streets to protest layoffs of janitors

Bedardo Sola, who recently lost his $17-an-hour janitorial job, spoke at a Boston Common rally in support of laid-off workers. Bedardo Sola, who recently lost his $17-an-hour janitorial job, spoke at a Boston Common rally in support of laid-off workers. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / March 22, 2009
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Bedardo Sola left El Salvador 10 years ago, hoping to find a good job and medical services for his wife and 4-month old daughter.

Now Sola, laid off from his job as a contract janitor at Harvard University, said he worries how he will pay for the operation his wife needs to save her sight.

"My family is the most important thing to me," Sola, 42, said in Spanish through a translator. "I felt so proud working at the most prestigious university in the world. Now I worry."

Sola joined an estimated 1,000 union workers and supporters yesterday who marched from Boston Common to Copley Square, to protest the layoffs of janitors and other service workers in Greater Boston.The Service Employees Union International Local 615 in Boston, which represents contract janitors at Harvard and downtown office buildings, organized the 90-minute rally and march.

"Today we want to send a message across Boston," Rocio Saenz, president of Local 615, said at the late-morning rally. "For a long time, many of the businesses [downtown] have enjoyed the prosperity. They have enjoyed the benefits that workers have not."

The janitors' layoffs are reflective of what other lower-wage workers are facing in the recession, Saenz said. "We need to get the message out to the business community that they cannot balance their books on the backs of workers," Saenz said in an interview during the march.

Union workers and supporters pledged to stand together, as they marched past empty office buildings, holding signs and chanting "Si Se Peude," or "Yes You Can." One message - "Don't act out of fear" - was aimed at Harvard Real Estate Services and at corporations the union says oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill pending in Congress that would make it easier for unions to organize.

Sola is one of eight janitors laid off March 16. Another round of layoffs is expected April 1, the union said.

The janitors are not Harvard employees; they work for unionized companies that have custodial contracts with Harvard. To control costs, the university has reduced the number of its vendor contracts, Kevin Galvin, a university spokesman, said in an e-mail.

In the statement, Galvin said the reductions were "a necessary step in response to the unprecedented fiscal challenges that we are facing at Harvard."

The university, like many others, has suffered steep losses to its endowment amid a meltdown on Wall Street. The endowment, which was $36.9 billion last June, lost at least 22 percent in the fall, and is expected to drop further, according to past Globe articles.

Harvard froze salaries for faculty and staff this year, offered early retirement to 1,600 workers, and is reviewing major construction projects, Galvin said.

Sola worked for a company called OneSource, which is owned by ABM Industries of New York. A spokesman for ABM said yesterday that the laid-off janitors will be covered by their union contract and could possibly be placed in another job.

"We constantly evaluate whether such individuals can be deployed among our other worksites," Tony Mitchell, vice president of corporate communications wrote in an e-mail. "We will continue to communicate with the union and remain wholly committed to maintaining a constructive dialogue in the mutual best interests of employees and customers alike."

Sola said he earned $17 per hour cleaning the Peabody Terrace complex at Harvard. He received 100 percent healthcare coverage, but those benefits stopped when he was laid off, he said.

He said he understands the university has lost money, but noted "The buildings are still open," he said, sporting a Red Sox coat and a purple SEIU flag. "I'm fighting for my job."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com

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