Celeste Ramos came to this country from Cape Verde and when she got here she knew she wanted to work at Green Airport. Her friends and relatives urged her to apply, but she doubted she would get the janitorial job she hoped for. Her English is limited, yet she applied and, to her delight, landed a job on the third shift. She is making about $12 an hour and working 40 hours a week for ISS, the company the Rhode Island Airport Corporation has contracted to do janitorial services.
But while Ramos knows how to handle a mop and how to keep restrooms sparkling, she also knows how to use a bullhorn and how to get across her message, even though she needed a translator to do it, as she demonstrated Thursday afternoon outside the terminal.
Ramos was one of three speakers at a Service Employees International Union Local 615 rally that was billed as a celebration of expansion at Green Airport. Also speaking was Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who received a less than warm welcome from unions across the state when she spearheaded the council’s review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of a runway extension. After her, Scott Duhamel, secretary treasurer of the Rhode Island Building Trades Council, spoke. He too was less than enthusiastic about the Warwick City Council before it moved to dismiss its appeal after it reached a memorandum of agreement with RIAC.
Now, apparently, Duhamel and Vella-Wilkinson couldn’t be on better terms.
Vella-Wilkinson called the SEIU one of the most diverse unions in the country, citing that 56 percent of its members are women and 40 percent are of color. Also, she said, the union covers a wide range of jobs and that, “without labor, no one prospers.”
Duhamel applauded Vella-Wilkinson for representing her constituents well and for recognizing the importance of Green Airport.
“This is a bright spot in a tough landscape,” he said. “The economy of Rhode Island centers around this airport.”
The rally, which concluded with the 25 union members gathering in the terminal for refreshments, was also a means of focusing attention on the SEIU. The union represents 14,000 janitors across New England and its contract with ISS US expires on Sept. 30.
Celeste Ramos shared the bullhorn with union organizer Maria Gonsalves, who acted as her translator. As many in the audience also had limited English, a union representative translated in English to Spanish using a wireless system with special ear sets.
Ramos credited the union with ensuring she and her colleagues get paid holidays, sick days and health care. Most important, she said, is that they have gained respect. She and her co-workers won union recognition in 2007.
“Fight for your rights,” she urged. “When we do our job, the union and the airport are better off.”
Currently, there are about 30 janitorial jobs at the airport. The expansion is not necessarily going to mean more janitorial positions, however, when the council committee and RIAC worked on an agreement, the construction phase of the runway extension and longer safety areas for the cross-wind runway was projected to create about 1,000 jobs.
Additional full-time jobs are anticipated, if the extended runway translates into more flights and passenger traffic.