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Workers march on Harvard, Cambridge College for better jobs, benefits

Martin Desmarais
Workers march on Harvard, Cambridge College for better jobs, benefits
Workers and members of 32BJ Service Employees International Union New England District 615 marched from Cambridge City Hall to Harvard University on Labor Day. The event was held to honor prior service industry workers, but also to protest employment practices at Harvard and Cambridge College, according to organizers. (Above) The march kicked off with a rally and several speakers. (R) The march streamed down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge with marchers carrying flags and many chanting labor slogans through bullhorns. (Martin Desmarais photos) (Photo: Martin Desmarais)

Author: Martin DesmaraisThe New England District 615 of 32BJ SEIU led a march on Labor Day that called for improved working conditions, a higher minimum wage and employee benefits. The demonstration went from Cambridge City Hall to Harvard University.

Several hundred workers and supporters marched from the steps of Cambridge City Hall to Cambridge College and then on to Harvard University on Labor Day.

Organizers said the event was meant to honor workers but also to remind employers that quality jobs and benefits have a direct effect on quality of life in the Boston community.

“Today, as we celebrate and honor the work of so many workers that came before us, we also honor ourselves for continuing this fight,” said Rocio Saenz, leader of 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) New England District 615.

The march was organized by 32BJ SEIU, which is the largest property services union in the country with more than 145,000 members, including 18,000 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

After a rally and a number of speeches at Cambridge City Hall the march proceeded to Cambridge College to protest against the college’s security services contractor, Longwood Security. According to 32BJ SEIU, non-union contractors such as Longwood threaten industry standards for wages and benefits.

The march ended at Harvard University, where marchers joined with students from Harvard Medical School to rally at Harvard Yard against announced cuts to janitorial staff at the school, which will begin in mid-September. The Cambridge City Council recently passed a resolution urging Harvard Medical School to reconsider lay-offs and look to cut other expenses in the budget before laying-off low-wage workers.

Walking in the march were workers such as Barbara Bastardo, a janitor at Harvard Medical School and mother of three boys. A single mother, Bastardo works the morning shift in order to take care of her children after school.

March organizers emphasized that many, like Bastardo, depend on their jobs for health insurance and to pay bills, and that the impending lay-offs are a massive concern.

Another marcher was Cecelia Johnson of Mattapan, who has worked as a security officer for over 20 years. Only within the last several years has she had union support. She says the union brought her better pay and benefits and she wants to do her part so others don’t have to go decades without such help, as she did.

“The union is the best thing that ever happened to us,” Johnson said. “People should help fight because they need that.”

Another marcher was Yahya Bajinka, an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who works at Logan Airport. Bajinka’s presence at the march was to support 32BJ SEIU’s efforts at a picket at Logan Airport that happened after the march in Cambridge.

Bajinka works part time at Logan Airport for $8 an hour and with no benefits. “Workers are forced into sweatshop-like conditions,” Bajinka said. “Logan takes advantage of the fact that many immigrants are in need of work and they use that to exploit us.

“We have no job security and are in fear of losing our jobs at any time,” he added. “My family in Gambia relies on me to survive. I send them hundreds of dollars a month along with paying bills for myself. It is not easy.”

According to Bajinka, he says it is important to take part in such marches and demonstrations to show the importance of union support.

“What motivates me is seeing the difference a union makes,” he said. “I believe it is my right to participate and won’t give up.”

Cambridge City Councilor Minka vanBeuzekom spoke prior to the march and also participated in the march. “It is just completely a no-brainer,” she said about taking part in the march. “It is about justice.”

VanBeuzekom told the crowd the city is behind their efforts to receive fair wages and benefits. “This is Cambridge and we definitely support good jobs,” vanBeuzekom said. “You are the people who build this community. … I just want to say that I personally support your efforts to build a strong community.

Cambridge Vice Mayor E. Denise Simmons also spoke to marchers from the steps of Cambridge City Hall. She pointed out that she wrote a letter to Cambridge College asking them to sit down and talk with 32BJ SEIU.

“We are here to fight for good jobs and good pay,” Simmons said. “So however long it takes: one day, one month, one year — which is too long — we are going to fight.

“We are not going to let anybody turn us around,” she added. “Stay strong and know that you don’t walk alone. … We walk with you.”

Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), was also on hand to support 32BJ SEIU and the marchers.

He said the AFL-CIO is working hard to push immigration reform and well as better legislation for worker benefits such as minimum wage and sick time.

“Most importantly the minimum wage has not been raised in five years and that must change,” Tolman said. “Minimum wage must also be tied into the consumer price index so that it goes up regularly.

“I am honored to stand with you in your struggle,” he added.

This sentiment was echoed by Rick Rogers, Greater Boston Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer. “We will support you in your struggle for better wages and benefits,” Rogers said. “And we will bring the support of all our workers. … Together we can make a difference.”