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CRE Confrontation Pressures Developers To Improve Pay, Conditions

About 10 janitors and union organizers on Monday afternoon confronted developers in Downtown Doral, Codina Partners’ massive mixed-use development near Miami, over alleged unfair labor practices. Seven janitors allegedly lost their jobs after they tried to organize a union and Codina switched cleaning contractors.

Service Employees International Union spokesperson Ana Tinsly said janitors who clean office buildings in Downtown Doral earn $8.65 per hour, and do not get sick days, vacation days or healthcare benefits. They also had to provide their own personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.

A livestream of the conflict showed the janitors and a union leader speaking with someone who appeared to be a property manager at Downtown Doral and demanding to be hired by the new cleaning contractor.  

“If you have an issue with their employer, you need to go to their corporate office. This is not the corporate office," the person said. "We're currently on Codina property, which is private, it's not public.”

Police were called, but the incident ended peacefully with no arrests. 

Codina Partners CEO Ana-Marie Codina Barlick in Doral, Florida.

Monday’s action was part of an ongoing “Justice for Janitors” movement organized by 32BJ SEIU, a property services union that's active in 11 states.

“Much of the blame for the janitors’ abysmal conditions belongs to wealthy developers and investors who outsource their cleaning jobs to low bid cleaning contractors, who pay people as little as Florida’s minimum wage with no meaningful benefits, paid sick days, or vacation,” SEIU said in a statement.

The practice primarily hurts immigrants and women of color.

A 2019 report released by 32BJ SEIU and the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, ranked Miami second-to-last in Florida for janitor pay and last among the largest U.S. metro areas when adjusted for cost of living.

Representatives for the janitors have already filed one formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Greene Kleen, the cleaning company that had contracted with Codina Partners to service part of Downtown Doral through May and in turn hired the janitors.

The janitors' representatives said they are gathering facts to file an additional complaint against the new cleaning contractor, Clean Space, and evaluating a potential charge against Codina.

Codina Partners is the developer of Downtown Doral, a mixed-use development — essentially a small city — on 250 acres. It includes 5,000 residential units, five office buildings, and 70 shops and restaurants.

Some of the janitors recently began organizing to form a union. They held exploratory meetings, coordinated with the SEIU, and circulated a petition calling for better pay and working conditions.

One janitor said she asked for two unpaid days off in January but was fired, allegedly as retaliation for her organizing efforts. In April, representatives from Greene Kleen, the contractor that employed the janitors, showed up uninvited to a union organizing meeting and refused to leave.

The janitors presented their petition to bosses at Greene Kleen, and to a person who manages the buildings for Codina. They allege that a Greene Kleen manager, Vanessa Bistuer, told one worker that she was in “hot water” for signing the petition and intimidated another worker by photographing her wearing a union sticker.

On May 6, about seven workers went on strike, seeking better working conditions and higher pay. They also picketed and protested with a band in Downtown Doral. 

Janitors including Manuel Baez, center in black, called for better conditions at Downtown Doral.

Amid the hubbub, Codina Partners switched cleaning companies, dropping Greene Kleen and contracting with Clean Space. Bistuer got hired by the new company and is now in charge of deciding which janitors get hired to service Downtown Doral, Tinsly said.

A Clean Space operations manager did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday. A person answering the phone at Greene Kleen said that neither the manager nor the owner wanted to comment. Codina Partners has so far not responded to a request for comment.

The SEIU alleges that it’s not unusual for property owners to solicit bids from multiple cleaning companies, which in turn end up undercutting one another to land contracts.

When a property does switch contractors, it’s common for the janitors to switch companies, too, staying on with the new contractor to service properties with which they’re familiar. Because the contractors are operating on thin margins, to make a profit, they keep janitors’ pay low and keep them on part-time schedules with no benefits.

When Codina switched cleaning companies, the SEIU emailed Clean Space a list of incumbent janitorial employees who hoped to be hired with the new contractor. Clean Space responded in an email that it would be hiring “new teams per client’s request.”

“We were just fighting to make our jobs better, and now I don’t know how we’re going to pay our rent," SEIU quoted Manuel Baez, who’s worked at the Downtown Doral office complex for more than three years, as saying. "We risked our lives throughout the pandemic, keeping the offices safe and sanitized for the building tenants, all while earning the minimum wage, without sick days, and often having to buy our own masks.”

Tinsly said that the current practice of subcontracting lets developers wiggle out of responsibility for treatment of workers and cuts off laborers' path to the middle class.

"Decades ago, a university janitor might have had benefits like tuition remission. Their kid could go to school. They'd be included in a health plan," Tinsly said. "Ideally, Codina should recognize workers that make their profits possible and not direct the contractor to not hire existing workers. They should ask the contractor to follow the law and there should be no discrimination against the workers who went on strike."

Over the past few years, SEIU BJ32 has helped other workers at other Miami office buildings file complaints with the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

UPDATE, MAY 20, 3:45 P.M. ET: After this story published, Codina Partners responded via email: "Codina Partners is not affiliated in any way with Greene Kleen and is no longer using its services. Codina Partners’ RFP process for a new cleaning contractor began in February 2021, well before the demonstrations began in April. At no point did Codina Partners request specific staffing changes from its contractors. As a private company, Codina Partners does not make a practice of instructing other business owners as to how to manage their operations."