The Keys to the School

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When students and teachers at P.S. 45 in Bushwick come back to school every fall, there’s a discernable difference from the spring: walls are painted, floors are waxed and the school looks a little fresher.

While most people notice, few think of thanking the man responsible. That would be Walter McQueen, the building’s cleaner and operations manager. But when they do, he feels great.

“It’s like receiving royalties: that little pat on the back, that effort acknowledged,” he said.

With 16 years at P.S. 45 and his time at private companies, Walter McQueen has nearly 30 years of experience in the cleaning business. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

With 16 years at P.S. 45 and his time at private companies, Walter McQueen has nearly 30 years of experience in the cleaning business. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

McQueen has spent the last 16 years at an annex of P.S. 45. With his time as an operations manager at private companies added in, that comes to nearly 30 years in the cleaning business. But he says that recent budget cuts and other factors have made things tough for him and other custodians.

“It’s become a very difficult job,” said McQueen, 57. “I think people would be surprised at how difficult the job is. You can’t have a school without the maintenance cleaners. We hold the keys to this school. Without us there is no school.”

That’s why he’s recently become more active in his local union, 32BJ SEIU. Last spring, he was one of the members chosen to present a question to New York City mayoral candidates during a debate. The union was making a decision on whether to endorse incumbent Michael Bloomberg, or his challenger, City Comptroller Bill Thompson. McQueen brought up his personal experience to question the wisdom of cutting hours for union employees. He said he had lost hours and therefore lost money from his salary, but the price of everything else—including his rent-stabilized apartment—had gone up. He’s glad to have raised the point with the candidates.

“When you don’t let them know you’re there, they don’t see you,” he said.

That’s what McQueen tries to do in the union, whether he’s asking questions at meetings, attending rallies in Albany or helping prepare contracts. He feels that many people don’t understand or appreciate his job, because most of what he does takes place behind the scenes.

“We don’t see it, we don’t understand it, we don’t respect it,” he said.

Beyond his union activism, McQueen, who’s also a father, used to run a mentorship program for young men called Man To Man. Though the group eventually folded, he keeps in contact with many of the kids he mentored. One of them still calls him “dad.” It’s that type of experience that keeps him involved motivated and tied in with the community.

“I never intended to become a community activist,” he said. “But somehow you get drawn into these things.”

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