NORWALK, Conn. – Union members and others shouted “Shame on you!” at the Maritime Aquarium – literally, toward the building – Saturday afternoon as they protested what they called a “Race to the Bottom.”
More than 70 people took part in the demonstration organized by 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), forcing aquarium patrons to squeeze their way past the chanting crowd, as they drew attention to the plight of 11 workers who had been cleaning the aquarium before being laid off in December.
“The workers who were until recently working for the Norwalk Aquarium were making decent wages with benefits,” said Alberto Bernardez, assistant director for 32BJ. “Now, because of the actions of the Norwalk aquarium, those workers are not going to have (any) choice but to line up … for public benefits.”
The workers never worked for the Maritime Aquarium, according to a press release from aquarium publicist Dave Sigworth.
“The aquarium did not lay off any workers in question, but did not renew a contract with a cleaning company as part of austerity measures to control our operating costs and avoid a deficit. The cleaning-contract cost had risen approximately 54 percent over recent years and therefore was part of the cost-cutting plan, which was difficult for all at the aquarium,” the release said.
The aquarium had contracted with Premiere Maintenance Inc. for 18 years, a press release from 32BJ said. “(The aquarium) replaced the cleaners with mostly part-time workers making poverty wages and no health care insurance, paid sick days or any other benefits,” the press release said.
“I’m enjoying working here at the aquarium for 14 years,” said Erika Aguilera, a mother of two, in the protest. “I try to do my job very well, keeping all the people happy, but they don’t care … They just fire everybody. We apply for our new jobs. They don’t care …”
The aquarium saved $43,000 by ending the contract with the cleaning service, said 32BJ District Director Juan Hernandez. Hernandez framed that as “less than half a percent of the overall budget.”
Speakers at the protest included state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), council members David Watts (D-District A) and Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk) and former Councilman Warren Peña, president of the South Norwalk Community Center (SoNoCC). District D Chairman Vinny Mangiacopra, who ran for mayor last year, attended but did not speak.
Duff said he and others have been “fighting for justice for janitors” for a long time.
“We’ve been working now for many months to try to bring the aquarium and 32BJ together to come together with an agreement. We haven’t got there yet. We are going to continue to fight each and every day to try to get that together so we have the justice for janitors so we don’t have a race to the bottom, we don’t have $8 an hour with no health benefits.”
Mayor Harry Rilling was not there. Rilling said later that he did not make it because he was meeting with members of another union, which he did not name. Aquarium President Jennifer Herring has been out of town, he said, but a meeting is scheduled for Tuesday morning with aquarium officials and council leaders.
The goal for Norwalk officials is to “find out exactly what the details are and what we can do to resolve this problem,” Rilling said.
“We want to sit down and see if we can’t come up with some solution,” he said.
Protesters said they would make their presence known at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.
The aquarium’s statement said the organization was prevented from hiring the workers back by the contract.
The statement said:
“We don’t know why the contractor had to lay off their workers, rather than reassign them other contracts, but we were precluded from hiring them by the contract. We hired other people from Norwalk and surrounding areas as we took this service and other functions in-house.
“The people we have hired are part-time employees, since our business is seasonal and we have to match our costs with our revenues – i.e., traffic is much higher in the summer and over school vacations. Their pay and benefits may be different but, again, we do not know the specifics of the compensation packages of the former contracted workers as the employment matters were private between the cleaning company and its employees.
“It would not be fair or efficient to lay off or let go our new hires now, who are again from Norwalk and the local area. (Ten are Norwalk residents.)
“Like many non-profits, we have had to make tough choices with respect to our costs over the year to stay on a sustainable financial path and to continue to provide an attraction to Norwalk of 400,000 visitors per year, educational services and programs for 175,000 kids, many of which are underserved, and other programs which benefit the City.”
SoNoCC spokesperson Pat Ferrandino also attended the protest, indicating afterward that it was good to see Hispanic people take action and protest.
“This is a community that has long been silent and needs to be heard,” he said. “I think that the Latino has been underrepresented. It’s time that the leaders rise up from within the community to protect the needs of the Latino community that for too long have been underserved by those who perhaps have a different agenda.”
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