WASHINGTON, D.C. — Paying bills and taking care of a family are often common stressors for many individuals, but they take on a whole new meaning for Victor Ramos, a groundskeeper at the Arlington National Cemetery. Ramos lost his job after going on strike.
“We’ve been on strike for three weeks, and it’s been a little rough,” Ramos said.
Groundskeepers in charge of maintaining the burial grounds at the Arlington National Cemetery went on strike after almost a year of labor disputes about wage increases and paid sick leave with the contracting companies Davey Tree Expert Co. and Greenleaf Services Inc.
“Many of the guys have been working for the company for five, 10, and even 20 years and have not gotten any raise,” said Jose Gonzalez, the organizer of the strike from the Laborer’s International Union of North America. “They demand something, and the company is just not willing to do it.”
Currently, the workers make about $13 an hour, and while they have some vacation time, they do not receive any paid sick leave. Many of them said they couldn’t afford to even go to the doctor to get a doctor’s note to prove they were sick in order to avoid getting fired for missing work. The workers have been asking for a 4 percent raise, which would increase their hourly wage by roughly 50 cents.
“It’s just not fair,” Gonzalez said. “These guys are just asking for a small change.”
Another groundskeeper at the cemetery, Jose Irving, said the labor disputes over the past year have contributed to a poor work environment.
“The only thing that has changed is that we have been getting more work,” Irving said. “It’s gotten to the point where I can’t come up to my supervisors with problems or else they will do their little punishments like give you more work.”
In addition, Ramos said that occasionally the companies send workers home early, causing many of them to fall short of working full 40-hour weeks.
“They don’t see you as people,” Irving said. “They see you as profitable.”
Greenleaf Services Inc. responded to the worker’s strike in a statement released on July 19 when the strike began, saying, “We are disappointed that our employees serving the landscaping needs of Arlington National Cemetery have decided to strike. This action by the union will in no way interrupt the important services we provide to the cemetery. Maintaining the pristine condition of these sacred grounds remains our top priority.”
The statement continued by saying “Our employees are paid between $17.37 and $18.93 per hour for work at the cemetery. These rates and their paid time off benefits are established by the Federal Government in accordance with the Davis-Bacon Act and reflect the prevailing rates for the region for this work. We have and will continue to negotiate in good faith with their union representatives in the hope of reaching a collectively bargained resolution. In the interim, we have arranged for all required groundskeeping positions to be staffed with well-qualified individuals.”
Now, three weeks into the strike, the workers and the companies have not yet been able to reach a resolution to this lengthy labor dispute.
“I’m prepared to be out here for as long as it takes,” Irving said. “I’m just trying to fight for our rights.”
In the meantime, the cemetery is still being properly maintained in order to ensure the service men and women who are buried there can still be properly honored.
“We obviously hope for a reasonable resolution for everyone involved, but quite honestly, our concern needs to be strictly on the operations of the cemetery, and to this point we have been working with the contracting company to ensure there is no degradation or lapse in service,” said Stephen Smith, the media relations coordinator for the Arlington National Cemetery. “We need to make sure we are putting to rest the nation’s heroes in the highest regard we possibly can everyday.”
As for Ramos, he continues this fight undeterred with uncertainty about his next job, how he will take care of his family and the obstacles he will face in the coming weeks.
“I hope they hear us out, give us a better contract, give me my job back and take care of their employees,” Ramos said.