May 1, 1996
By Yolanda Reynolds
Photos by Mary Andrade
The “Justice for Janitors Campaign”, as promised, is gathering momentum. Last Monday, local janitors and many sympathizers matched from the parking lot at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on 8th and East Santa Clara Street to the intersection of Santa Clara Street and Market in downtown San Jose, where they blocked traffic as a way to draw attention in the plight of the janitors who have been struggling to improve their pay and working conditions.
This campaign, led by SEIU 1877 (Service Employees International Union), represents the interest of 5,000 Bay Area janitors. Several years ago, after numerous demonstrations and eve a multi-day fast by some of the janitors, the Union members were ultimately successful in increasing the prevailing wages for the janitors. At that time, it was not unusual to hear of janitors being paid less than the minimum wage. Many were bereft of beneﬁts as basic as personal sick-leave, vacation time and overtime pay.
Today, the janitors are seeking to correct poor working conditions, low pay and very limited beneﬁts provided by janitorial contracting companies doing business in this area where some of the world’s most successful and richest companies are based.
The janitors want a single contract. Currently, new hires are paid up to $3 less than the top pay of $9.33 for long time employees – even though they perform the same work. The janitors also want health care beneﬁts for their families. Some janitors receive personal health care insurance while others receive absolutely nothing. Since the janitors’ average salary is approximately $15,000 per year, little money is left for other major family expenses, such as health insurance, after they pay for housing, food and clothing. Sadly, most janitors, after working long hours, still find themselves living below the “level of poverty” as deﬁned by the Federal government.
Their problems are even greater in this area since the cost of living rate here is very high.
The janitors are also seeking a reasonable work load. Generally, each janitor is expected to clean the equivalent of 45 homes each night of work.
Rosaleno Pedres, an SEIU union organizer explained that recent attempts to reach an agreement with representatives of the major janitorial firms having contracts in the area were unsuccessful. Pedres explained that the SEIU will be taking their protest to the building owners.
The building owners that they plan to target are Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems, Stanford University and Varian Bros. The largest janitorial companies in the Bay Area are; American Building Maintenance, International Service Systems, Paciﬁc Maintenance and Acme Building Maintenance. They compete among each other in providing maintenance at the most competitive rate which, for a labor-intensive operation, translates to paying the lowest salaries possible. They said “no” to the demands of the Union.
The campaign to improve pay and work conditions is being followed closely by labor, business and politicians. According to a recent article, “Republicans Are Up in Arms At Labor’s Political Rebirth,” in the New York Times Business section, the author Peter T. Kilborn says that “Republican organizers, who have mocked or ignored unions in campaigns since the 1970’s,” are now calling unions “big labor” again and ridiculing Washington union bosses and “beltway bosses.”
The fact is that unions, over time, have become less vigilant than they had been a number of decades ago when, in the 1930’s, they won major victories that resulted in greatly improved salaries and working conditions for American labor. Historians and others credit well organized and unrelenting union activism with creating in the United States the largest middle class of any known civilization. This huge middle class is credited with providing this country with an enduring democratic form of government and robust economy.
Many believe that current and growing disparity in income is unjust and extremely worrisome. According to recent reports, the median pay for the chief executive officers of the nation’s largest corporations increased in one year alone (last year) “that was 212 times higher than the pay of the average American employee… That’s nearly a ﬁve fold increase since 1965 when the multiple was 44.”
In the same period the average American worker’s salary had increased by a mere 2.9 percent – the lowest in the last 14 years. It is hardly just the janitors who should be paid an average of $14,000 per year. Not only are janitors poorly paid, so are many other workers.
Industry has been threatening American workers into submission by declaring that, unless the “business climate” is favorable, they will relocate or leave the country altogether. For many of these major, oftentimes multinational, companies, a “favorable business climate” means; the receipt of signiﬁcant government (public) subsidy (welfare), access to low paid labor and an absence of workplace standards and environmental regulations. Unions are saying “ya basta.”
In Monday’s protest march, the demonstrators carried aloft posters announcing that a struggle for justice has been declared and, while marching, sang such chants as “Are you willing to ﬁght?” “Hell, yes!” “Are you ready to fight?,” “Hell, yes” and “Qué queremos?” “contrato” “Cuándo?” “Ahora” and adding, “We won’t take it anymore!”
The struggle will not be easy and already one long time labor leader has paid for speaking out on behalf of the janitors. Richard Sawyer, the Western Regional Representative of Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Secretary Treasurer of the South/Bay Labor Council was reportedly drummed out of his job with the Labor Department by the pro-business Republican leadership in Washington D.C. for explaining to at Sacramento Hewlett Packard executive that the company was likely to be in violation of Labor law by “setting up a company union (in Sacramento) to fight SEIU.” SEIU has targeted the Sacramento Hewlett Packard operation for the poor working conditions under which the janitors work.
The chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee, Pete Hoekstra, a Republican, charged Sawyer with an attempt “to influence Hew1lett Packard into forcing the Sacramento HP executive to sign a union contract with SEIU.
The last demonstration by the janitors took place on Tuesday April 30 in Palo Alto. Member janitors from South San Francisco, San Ramon and Oakland joined in the protest demonstration. Buses transported people to Palo Alto. There was a bus at 0ur Lady of Guadalupe at 2020 East San Antonio, another at Sacred Heart Church at 325 Willow Street and buses also at 1010 Ruff Drive, the Union headquarters in San Jose.
Also represented in the Campaign for Justice are janitors from Santa Clara, Alameda. Contra Costa and San Mateo counties.
For more information, contact Rosaleno Pedres at (408) 280-7770. © La Oferta Newspaper.