A crowd of more than 50 gathered outside the Environmental Protection Agency building in downtown Denver on Tuesday to demand better working conditions and wages for janitors at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. Their message: If the EPA can treat its janitors fairly, so can NREL.
NREL janitor Idhali Portillo spoke at the demonstration while her young son waved around a mop twice his height. “Just like everyone, I get sick sometimes. My kids get sick sometimes. But I can’t afford to take even one day off while earning $12 an hour.”
The 32 janitors who clean and maintain NREL facilities want higher wages, paid sick days, holidays, vacation and better health insurance, but contract negotiations have been stalled out for over a year.
Their employer, Whayne and Sons Enterprises, Inc., is a facilities maintenance service contracted by the company that manages NREL for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Whayne has been accused of illegal union busting. Last year, the company fired three NREL janitors and threatened others for organizing a union. The company forbid workers from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment and separated employees during breaks to ensure their silence.
Despite intimidation, janitors voted to unionize in January of last year. They brought their complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The case was settled before going to trial in October 2014. The result? The three fired employees were reinstated with full back pay and the company posted a notice affirming employees’ right to collectively bargain.
But NREL janitors are looking for more results.
When they proposed seven paid sick days a year, the owner of Whayne allegedly told them he wouldn’t pay for his employees to take their kids fishing and insisted on a 4 percent pay cut instead.
Representatives from the company didn’t respond to request for comment.
Frustrated by the impasse, NREL janitors turned to their community for support.
On Tuesday, state Representative Jessie Danielson from Golden stood in support with SEIU Local 105. Her reaction to hearing about the contract dispute was mixed: “NREL is beloved in our district, but you have to treat these people with respect and dignity — [janitors] are an integral part of making sure that NREL can achieve its goals.”
Danielson also shared a message from Sandra Chavez, a janitor in the EPA building who was inside cleaning at the time. “I’m glad to work in an energy efficient building, and also that I have paid leave that I can use when I get sick,” Chavez’s note read. “If the EPA can treat its janitors fairly, why can’t NREL?”
Clean energy advocates were also at the protest to show solidarity. Eddie Soto, organizing manager for Protégete, a Conservation Colorado program that organizes within the Hispanic community, said that workers’ rights have to be at the forefront of sustainable energy development.
“If [the renewable energy industry] only benefits the 1 percent like in oil and coal, then we’ll have the same system where people of color, low income people, people in rural communities will be affected,” he said.
As the group started to disperse, they chanted: “No sick days? No peace!”
Photo by Rafael Morataya, via SEIU Local 105.