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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 16, 2011, 2:25 pm

Janitors Commemorate 21st Anniversary of Justice for Janitors March

BY Rose Arrieta

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Members of Service Employees International Union Local 49 rally June 15 in Portland, Ore., for Justice for Janitors Day 2011.   (Photo via SEIU Local 49 )

Twenty-one years ago, on June 15, hundreds of low-wage janitors marched in Los Angeles, demanding better working conditions.

The march turned into a bloody scene when police on horseback surrounded the janitors and their supporters, beating them back with clubs. It sparked a movement. The Justice for Janitors campaign was born and janitors won their first ever union contract.

Yesterday, nearly 1,000 janitors again rallied in Los Angeles to demand fair wages and a better quality of life.

They were part of the national Justice for Janitors Day, protesting an economy many consider unbalanced and unjust as the working class is squeezed to a breaking point. And it seems the gains made over the years that lifted janitors out of poverty have since dwindled, with wages not keeping up with the cost of living and affordable health care becoming just a memory.

One worker held up a sign: “What’s Dignity?: New shoes for my daughter. A birthday party for my son.”

"The middle class in this country is under the gun," said Martha Martinez, a janitor employed by ABM, a facility services corporation, at the Century City Towers in Los Angeles. "While big corporations are getting all the money, a lot of people don't have jobs. And even more people are working for a living but not making a living."

Union organizer Mike Chavez said that the paid wages are so low that ”janitors struggle to meet the basic needs of their families.”

Some workers, according to Chavez, earn as little as $312 per week after taxes.

Other rallies were held in Chicago, Seattle and Denver and similar events were held across the globe in Germany, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Janitors are fighting on all fronts. According to a June 2011 report by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, unregulated temp agencies are hiring janitors and other blue-collar workers at low wages, often in dangerous environments and without benefits.

The Boston Globe states that, "Some are paid less than minimum wage and often do not receive due overtime pay because both the agency and the employer split 40-plus-hour work weeks into two paychecks."

The Massachusetts House is looking at a measure that would regulate temp agencies.

Back in the Bay Area at Stanford University, it’s a story whose theme many readers are probably familiar with: workers are employed by one janitorial subcontractor (ABM) then traded to a new subcontractor hired by the employer, in this case, UGL UNICCO, whom the university said would provide “superior services.” 

In many cases that means another subcontractor submits a lower bid. As has played out in various supermarket labor fights, the new contractor cuts the staffing and the remaining cleaners are forced to work longer hours with less help. Most recently, this dynamic led several janitorial workers to go on a hunger strike in Minneapolis, as reported in this May 27 post.

Under the agreement at Stanford between UGL and the SEIU (which represent 225,000 janitors nationwide), UGL was obligated to offer all ABM workers the opportunity to keep their jobs as long as they submitted to background checks to verify their identity and check their criminal history.

In a letter from UGL, according to The Stanford Daily, the purpose of the checks was to verify employees' legal right to work in the U.S. While UGL could have used an I-9 form, which does not ask for a social security form, the company chose to use “no-match” letters, which are issued if the social security numbers on W2 forms don't match up to Social Security Administration records. 

The Student Labor Action Coalition, a student advocacy group calling for UGL to rehire all former ABM janitors, requested the university to step in. They submitted a letter to Stanford and UGL with 2,000 signatures that read:

“Workers should retain their employment and the wages and benefits associated with their seniority rights through a subcontracting transition.”

The letter states that as many as 70 workers are at risk of being unjustly fired or losing their seniority and benefits.

UGL denies this and says “only” 29 workers will be affected, claiming they are not the longest working or highest paid, and that none have worked at the university for more than 15 years. 

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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