Janitors Commemorate 21st Anniversary of Justice for Janitors March

Rose Arrieta

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

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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