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Janitors at Denver International Airport stage one-day strike to send message to employer

Dozens of Denver International Airport janitors walked off their jobs to join a picket for better pay and conditions on Friday.
Michael de Yoanna
Dozens of Denver International Airport janitors walked off their jobs to join a picket for better pay and conditions on Friday.

Janitor Luis Gonzalez smiled a little on Friday when asked how it felt to go on strike.

“It feels great,” he said, as his fellow janitors at Denver International Airport rallied around him.

In his decade as an airport janitor, Gonzalez, who lives in Aurora, said he had little reason to join a picket line.

“You know, it used to be a great job to work, but now, bad job,” he said.

What changed, he said, is the price of everything – from housing to food to gas. The cost of living has risen sharply throughout the metro area, but wages have not.

“We're struggling paycheck to paycheck every day,” Gonzalez said.

His colleagues told the same story. Dozens of them came, wearing purple Service Employees International Union Local 105 t-shirts, forgoing work and pay to instead picket outside the airport.

“Justice for Janitors,” one sign read.

“We are essential,” read another.

Almost all of the roughly 350 janitors responsible for keeping the airport clean voted in favor of a strike as negotiations with their employer, Texas-based contractor Flagship Facility Services, floundered. Workers staged the one-day walkout to send a message of unity.

In response, Flagship issued a message of its own – one of disappointment – according to a statement the company sent to KUNC in response to a request for comment.

"We're disappointed that the union has turned down our final offer for an agreement that would have protected and improved wages and provided very generous fringe benefits for our valued employees,” the statement said. “We hope the union will reconsider. In the meantime, we are prepared to serve the public at Denver International Airport to uphold a clean and safe environment and quality service for travelers in the interim."

Service Employees International Union Local 105 President Ron Ruggiero said increased pay is not the only sticking point in negotiations. Janitors, he said, want to know they’re appreciated. He noted the important role they played in keeping DIA’s common areas and bathrooms clean throughout the coronavirus pandemic, while facing the risk of infection.

“They've been called heroes by political leaders, business leaders – everybody,” Ruggiero said. “And what these contract negotiations are about is this workforce. These workers are like, ‘We need to be treated like heroes. We need to be treated like essential workers.’ Obviously pay is a huge issue. Workload is an issue, but fundamentally, it's about respect and that's what led to this.”

Ruggiero added that the union will continue to seek a deal for janitors. Without one, he said janitors could strike again.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.