On International Workers’ Day, custodial workers get justice

May 1 is International Workers’ Day, an annual celebration of workers around the world. With help from Councilmember Tom Hucker, local custodial workers were able to mark the day with a victory.

Certified Building Services of Derwood, which for a decade has provided custodial services to buildings from Rockville south to Silver Spring and Chevy Chase under a $3 million county contract, agreed to pay almost $20,000 to settle complaints that it intimidated workers trying to join a union.

“Tom was actively engaged and sharing support to the workforce during the organizing campaign,” said Ray Lee, organizing director for UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO. “He was actively involved in the campaign, writing letters that were distributed to workers and the company.”

Hucker praised the settlement. “Workers have a right to organize and join unions to get better pay and working conditions,” he said. “And employers should be held accountable to respect that right.”

The settlement, approved by the National Labor Relations Board, calls for the company to pay a total of $16,000 to three workers who were illegally fired for their organizing activities, according to a news release from the union issued May 1. The money will compensate the workers for back pay and lost benefits. The company will also pay the union almost $3,000 for its expenses incurred during its organizing campaign.

The company’s intimidation efforts paid off, Lee said, as the union lost the election to represent the workers by only three votes.

“The workers were so afraid,” Lee said.

Among them was Rosa Ortiz of Hyattsville, who worked for Certified Building Services for five years, cleaning the county’s Dennis Avenue Health Center in Silver Spring.

Ortiz was fired, she said, because the company accused her of union organizing at the clinic, but she wasn’t.

“That wasn’t true,” she said. “We were just talking about what’s going on in the building.”

But it’s not as if Ortiz didn’t want to join the union, as it could have helped stop what she saw as employer abuse. Not only did her supervisor treat her and her co-workers in a “degrading” way, but her paychecks bounced, she said.

“That was the No. 1 thing I complained about,” she said.

The settlement was fair, in that it “acknowledged that I wanted to have a voice in the union family,” Ortiz said. “It was something.”

The settlement stems from a complaint filed by the federal agency’s Baltimore office in March, claiming that Certified Building Services not only fired workers but threatened them with deportation for their organizing activities, according to the union. Besides compensating the workers and union, the company agreed that in the future it will not ask workers about their union activities or threaten them with pay cuts if they select the union to represent them, among other steps.

In addition, the settlement calls for the company to grant representatives of the federal agency access to its facilities to train its supervisors on worker rights under federal labor laws — an important concession, Ortiz said. Also, the company agreed to let agency personnel teach employees about their rights.

As for Ortiz, she’s been working as an organizer for MCGEO since she was fired last year.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “I get to help ladies working with cleaning, helping organize other workers doing the same work.”

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