Baraka, Fulop among pols backing N.J. janitors' push for $15 wage

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 13, 2015

Morristown mayor Tim Dougherty gets a handshake as as public officials back the Service Employees International Union 32BJ while they are working for a new contract in Newark.

 

NEWARK – A coalition of politicians, clergy and other leaders gathered in Newark Tuesday to push for a $15 per hour wage for thousands of janitors around the state.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp were among the notable supporters for 32BJ SEIU as it kicked off contract negotiations with employers at the Hilton hotel by Newark Penn Station.

Those at the bargaining table for the union say they are fighting for not just higher wages, but more full-time jobs that will provide their members with much-needed healthcare benefits.

"The dignity of a person means you don't work full-time in New Jersey and live below the poverty line," said Father Tim Graff of the Archdiocese of Newark. "That's not a sign of respect, that's not a sign of seeing the value of other people."

The so-called "Fight for $15" movement has largely been focused on fast food restaurant employees, but has also gained traction in other sectors, including airport workers, laundry workers and janitors.

The movement has claimed victories in cities such as Seattle, New York and Los Angeles, and two candidates currently seeking the Democratic presidential nomination – Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders – have endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $15.

In New Jersey, however, Gov. Chris Christie has scuttled efforts to raise the minimum wage, vetoing a bill that would have raised it by $1.25 in January 2013.

Kevin Brown, 32BJ's Vice President and New Jersey State Director, said most of the union's members earn approximately $13 per hour working in offices from Prudential's Newark offices to Campbell's Soup headquarters in Camden. While that dwarfs the state's minimum wage of $8.38, he said it is far from enough to support a family.

"All workers need to be able to lift themselves out of poverty, just as we are striving to do, and create a strong middle class in this country," he said.

Politicians in attendance expressed similar sentiments, urging employers to let their profits trickle down to even those who perform their most menial tasks. The current four-year contract for 32BJ members expires at the end of the year.

"We are moving very rapidly out of this recession, which means that (employers) are making money, and its time for employees to start making a decent amount of money as well," said Baraka.

East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor acknowledged that support for raising wages for unskilled labor largely fell along party lines, but said he considered it a question of morality.

"I'm not here for political reasons, I'm here because this is the right thing to do at the right time for workers in our state," he said.

One of the largest labor organizations in the country, 32BJ represents more than 145,000 property service workers, including about 7,000 in New Jersey.

Among them was 62-year-old Miguel Lantigua, 62, who expressed hope the negotiations might bring healthcare for he and his family, an aspiration informed mostly by his recent battle with prostate cancer.

"I found out that having cancer is something really awful," he said through a translator. "That is scary, but when you have a healthcare plan, at least you know that you can fight it."

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