The roughly 1,300 Portland-area janitors unionized with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 work at some of Portland’s most prominent businesses, including Nike, Adidas, and Intel. They also clean at Oregon Health Science University and at landmark buildings in downtown Portland, as well as the Lloyd District. 

In other words: They do the dirty work for some of the city’s most elite, prosperous businesses with some of the highest paid executives and white-collar staff. And while their jobs may not be the most glamorous or high-profile, they’re crucial, and workers want to make sure their pay and treatment reflects that. 

As the SEIU bargaining team begins negotiations for their next four-year contract, workers are mobilizing for support. Union janitors are seeking wage increases to keep up with the increasing cost of living. They also want to maintain their healthcare benefits and improve their workload, which many say has grown recently due to short-staffing. 

SEIU negotiated their current janitorial contract agreement, which expires at the end of June, in 2021— right after the worst days of the pandemic. Janitors spoke out about their experience as frontline workers during that time, when they were put in charge of sanitizing buildings to stop the spread of Covid, often working without proper protective equipment. When the union ratified that contract, they’d secured a 14 percent wage increase over three years, in addition to other benefits union leaders were happy with. 

But three years later, the cost of living in Portland has only gotten higher, and workers want to make sure their new contract builds on what they gained in 2021. At the end of May, about 100 janitors and their supporters held a bargaining kick-off rally outside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland’s Lloyd District. Workers shared their goals for a new contract and asked for public support. 

Workers say their jobs are crucial, especially as employees shift back to working in offices. During the pandemic, office buildings downtown and in the Lloyd Center cleared out as employees went to work from home. Now, as employers and city leaders work to revitalize Portland’s downtown core and former business hubs, employees are returning to work in the office. The union members say having well-staffed, fairly-compensated janitorial crews will become even more critical.  

“Our work in downtown Portland and through the metro area at companies like Adidas, Nike, and Intel has been and continues to be essential, especially through the pandemic where we continued to show up on the front line every day,” Renato Quintero, a janitor at Intel, said at the rally, according to an SEIU press release. 

Janitors with the Service Employees International Union Local 49 rally together near the Oregon Convention Center on May 31. seiu local 49

While SEIU Local 49 workers clean at high-profile businesses, the union’s bargaining committee doesn’t interact directly with those companies. The larger companies subcontract janitorial services to several different companies, all of which are included in the same SEIU contract. However, it’s up to clients like Nike to continue working with the unionized companies. Union members want to send the message that it’s good business and good community investment to hire unionized janitorial workers. 

“With competitive wages and benefits, we have higher worker retention which is a benefit for both building owners and our employers,” Quintero said. “An investment in us is an investment in our cities, our communities."

Quintero, who serves as the vice president of property services on SEIU’s executive board, told the Mercury in an interview he has worked at Intel for about 22 years. He helped organize his fellow workers at Somers Building Maintenance, which contracts with Intel, about 20 years ago, and said the working conditions improved substantially after joining SEIU. 

“The benefits were really good after joining the union,” Quintero told the Mercury. “We work with very rich, profitable companies with good reputations. We hope they’ll continue to live up to that reputation of being a good place to work.” 

Santa Gonzalez has cleaned at the Nike headquarters for 20 years. She told the Mercury that before her workplace unionized, employees made low wages, and didn’t have holidays or sick days. Now, Gonzalez says her experience at work is much better, but she and her coworkers are still struggling to keep up with the increasing cost of living—especially if they want to live within a reasonable commuting distance from their workplaces. 

“We’re having a difficult time keeping up with all the expenses,” Gonzalez, who spoke to the Mercury using a Spanish translator. “We need the support of the community, all the support we can get.”

Elena Jimenez has been a janitor at Adidas for 17 years. She said that while each janitor is supposed to be responsible for cleaning one floor of the building, staff shortages mean she is now often responsible for taking care of five floors. 

“I think they should hire someone else to cover it, or at least pay us overtime to do these duties because it’s a lot to do during the day,” Jimenez said. “We have to take care of business and we have to keep moving. We cannot stop.” 

Jimenez also said that while it’s nice union janitors have more time off than they used to, including sick days and holidays, they need more vacation time. Not only is the job physically demanding, but Jimenez pointed out that many of her coworkers are immigrants to the United States and have family abroad who they haven’t seen for a long time. 

“People who don’t have their families here need more time for vacation to visit them,” Jimenez said. 

Janitors hope community support and recognition will help encourage their management to agree to a good contract. They say after so much hard work, particularly through the pandemic, it’s time for the workers to reap the benefits. 

“Janitors are often afraid to speak up because they’re afraid to lose their jobs,” Jimenez said. “But we were front-liners during Covid, and it’s time for us to ask for more.”