Demanding justice for Black cleaning workers in Halifax

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Taylor MacLean is a cleaning worker who lives in Halifax. Darius Mirshahi is an organizer with SEIU Local 2 in the same city, in particular with their Justice for Janitors campaign. Scott Neigh interviews them about anti-Black racism in the workplace, about precarious work, about an injustice faced by MacLean and a number of other Black cleaning workers, and about the human rights complaint and community campaign that the workers and their supporters have mounted in response.

Racism against Black workers is ubiquitous in all kinds of workplaces, and plays out in a lot of different ways. MacLean says that in his experience, it is common for the work of Black workers to face greater scrutiny from supervisors than the work of white workers, and it is also extremely common for Black workers to be reprimanded for things that are more likely to be ignored when white workers do them. Racism can also be a significant barrier to Black workers getting and keeping jobs, and to being promoted.

Precarious work is also increasingly common, these days, and takes a lot of different forms. Take, for example, the work of keeping buildings clean -- what you might call janitorial work or cleaning work. In most cities across North America, particularly in large downtown buildings but in lots of smaller places throughout communities as well, it is mostly contracted out to cleaning companies. These companies must periodically bid on the contracts for particular buildings, which exerts a powerful downward pressure on wages and can make the jobs of cleaners quite insecure. Sometimes, workers are kept on when a contract changes hands, but in most jurisdictions, there is no guarantee. Because the work is organized this way, most cleaning jobs pay less than a living wage and are quite precarious.

In the face of these conditions, lots of cleaning workers have chosen to organize. Much of that has happened through the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, particularly through their Justice for Janitors campaign. Justice for Janitors has been around since 1985, and has members in cities across the continent. How exactly Justice for Janitors has played out has varied a great deal in different times and places, but the intent, at least, has been to go beyond the narrow workplace-only approach taken by many unions to include more active engagement with community.

Until quite recently, MacLean worked cleaning a building in Halifax called Founders Square, for a company called GDI Integrated Facility Services. Founders Square is a property which is managed by Armour Group, Ltd. In March of this year, Armour Group terminated its contract with GDI and contracted a company called Deep Down Cleaning to take over cleaning Founders Square. The union heard about this, and as is its practice in such cases, it approached both Armour Group and Deep Down Cleaning to see if they would be willing to retain the same workers to do the same work. While companies are not obliged to do this in Nova Scotia, they sometimes are willing to in order to have staff who have experience with the building, and for some companies it is even standard policy. But the union's letter was ignored in this case, and it soon became clear that only one non-supervisory cleaning worker who had worked under GDI was being hired by Deep Down Cleaning. The one non-supervisory worker who was hired was white. All of those non-supervisory workers who were not hired were Black.

The laid-off workers and the union were very clear that whether this was the result of overt bigotry or not, the impacts were racist. They decided to launch a human rights complaint and they held a media conference involving prominent Black community activists and politicians with sympathy for workers. The workers at this point still had a few weeks left on the contract, and the company fired them immediately and took to the media claiming that the termination of the contract had been due to complaints about shoddy work -- a tactic that MacLean and Mirshahi identify as an attempt to divert attention from the racism that is the core issue in the situation. Certainly it was news to the laid-off workers themselves, who had not been told of complaints about their work, and was also news to at least some tenants of Founders Square, who spoke out in support of the workers.

Since then, the campaign supporting the workers has grown. Multiple rallies have been held to demand an apology and the re-hiring of the laid-off workers, with extensive community support. Though the union has used their collective agreement to find new work for the workers at other sites, the human rights complaint is still slowly moving forward, and community groups continue to push the companies involved to do right by the Black workers who were treated unjustly.

Image: Logo from the Justice for Janitors SEIU Local 2 Facebook page used with permission.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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