La Oferta

November 29, 2023

Janitors seek justice and expect improvements in pay and working conditions

April 10, 1996

By Yolanda Reynolds

Photos by Mary J. Andrade

La Oferta Newspaper.

The Justice for Janitors campaign that began a number of years ago, is pressing forward in a quest for justice and fairness. In this valley with many of the world’s leading hi-tech companies, and where owners, executives and investors are reaping millions in profits and salaries, many waiters, especially the janitors, are being paid only slightly more than the minimum wage.

Even after years of work in places such as downtown Oakland, janitors are generally paid only $9.33 per hour. Research findings, presented in a document entitled “Narrowing the Gap: For Less Than One Penny” and published by the Service Employees Union 1877, indicate that entry level for janitorial wages, in most areas of the of the four county area of the study: Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties, are below the poverty level.

For the family of four, that means that the family earns approximately $15,000 per year and frequently only a single member, if any have health care benefits.

Janitor’s salaries and benefits have remained stagnant and have even been reduced as large companies have begun to “outsource” their janitorial services in cost cutting, “lean mean” move to garner increased company profits.

While low level employees saw their pay reduced, or jobs sent abroad and were faced with “right to work” states where unions were discouraged, top executives and companies reported record salaries and profits. For janitorial workers, their pay was simply reduced and their benefits eliminated.

Veteran janitorial worker and labor organizer, Guillermo Vasquez, says that, besides better salaries and benefits, workers want the option of better job training. He explained that the workers and the client companies would benefit from well trained

Vasquez says that there are equipment, products and operating requirements that would not only improve working conditions for the worker but provide better building and equipment maintenance. Especially if the workers knew how best to use and care for carpets and equipment as well as the appropriate and safe use of cleaning products.

The janitors are struggling for better, benefits and improved opportunities for professional growth. Labor union advocate, Teresa Marshall points out that, what is happening to the janitors is a “snapshot of what is happening to workers across the United States.” Prior to the outsourcing of janitorial services Hewlett Packard janitors were paid $12 per hour plus family medical benefits. Afterwards, janitors were paid only $5 per hour and had no health or other benefits. Mr. Packard who recently died and was the co-founder of Hewlett Packard and was worth billions. His company in one year alone, 1989, is reported to have made over $12 billion. Packard, a Republican, was a noted philanthropist and a counselor to recent U.S. presidents.

The declining income of the American worker is increasingly a topic of debate and concern. The U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, is a vocal advocate of greater attention to the status of the American worker.

Many community leaders also recognize the debilitating effect of low incomes and hopelessness of families and the resulting increasing inability to provide for the health care, education and housing of their children.

Union organizer Rosalino Padres pointed out that to our country the overall cost savings of low pay, to so many people is illusory, since these families must then find help to survive by using such programs as food stamps, public health services, rental assistance and aid from non-profit charities. In other words, the companies are requiring the tax payers and the charity of others to provide necessary supplemental services to their workers and are thus expecting others to subsidize their ill-gotten company profits.

SEIU 1877 has been successful in improving the hourly janitorial pay in this area. Just a few short years ago it was often less than the minimum wage. In the world famous “Silicon Valley,” where the average educational level and income is one of the highest in the United States and thereby the world and “reasonable” apartment rents average 3700 per month, ethicists, religious leaders, community leaders, some politicians and too few industrialists have joined the workers in their struggle for fairness and justice.

To accelerate their union organizing and to add even more pressure on the client companies, whose demands for lowering their operational costs is constant, SEIU hosted an all-day convention last Saturday for the ratification. The member SEIU chapters ratified a series of demands that are intended to improve the working conditions for janitors in this four-county area.

The four demands are; the need for wage increases as the majority of janitors live in poverty; family health care coverage; the establishment of a training trust fund to professionalize the industry; establish workload limits; to respect the rights of immigrant workers; and single contract to assure common standards. Currently there is a two tier pay schedule. Veteran janitors are paid almost twice as much as new hires and also have benefits. New hires are limited in opportunities for pay raises and few receive even limited benefits at all.

SEIU 1877 which just a few years ago had barely 2,000 members, has in recent years grown in membership to over 5,000. The former National

President of SEIU recently became the top labor leader and is now the President of the national AFL-CIO nationally. The current President of the national SEIU, Andy Stern, was in San Jose to address the convention participants. Also at the convention was San Jose mayor Susan Hammer and leaders of the Bay Area Labor Council.

The union organizers met with the top officials of four of their target companies to discuss a single contract and the other demands on their list. The meeting was held on April 3 at Sacred Heart Church. Also, attending the meeting as observers were Father William Leininger and Father Mateo Sheedy. Also, attending the Wednesday meeting were union representatives from Denver Colorado, Seattle Washington, Portland Oregon, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles California.

The SEIU leadership would like a quick settlement but is prepared to escalate the pressure. SEIU spokeswoman Marshall explained, “If employer are prepared to negotiate in good faith we will respond accordingly – these companies will have to demonstrate in a concrete and meaningful way that they are sincere.”

Marshall adds, ‘‘They, (the companies) have already made money off the backs of the workers with past rollback: we are only trying to reestablish standards that we had ten years ago.” The union leadership explains that the cost for this program to the client companies would amount to only one penny of every rental dollar.

Of the janitorial workforce in this four-county area, approximately 20% are female and approximately 50% are recent immigrants (10 or fewer years). Among this workforce, approximately 10% are Portuguese American, 10% African American, and approximately 80% are Latino.

There are a number of major janitorial contractors in the area. They are: American Building Maintenance (ABM), International Service Systems (ISS), both national companies, Pacific Maintenance, Acme Building Maintenance, and Able Building Maintenance as well as other 25 smaller local companies

La Oferta will attempt to keep the readership informed of the progress of this struggle with periodic, if short, Spanish/English reports.

For more information on SEIU, contact either Rosalino Padres who speaks both Spanish and English at (408) 280-7770 ext. 123. Teresa Marshall may be contacted at (415) 648-9881. © La Oferta Newspaper.