Elon Musk’s Takeover Through The Eyes of Twitter’s Janitors
Three weeks before the holidays, Twitter laid off its custodial staff. We spoke to them on what they saw at HQ.
Billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has captured headlines for its tumultuous effect on the company’s corporate staff and the risks it poses to the platform’s future survival. But Musk’s acquisition also has dire, albeit underreported, consequences for the service staff who keep the blue bird humming.
In These Times spoke to four janitors who say that all 20 custodial workers at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters lost their jobs on December 5 because Twitter’s new custodial contractor refused to rehire them. The move comes less than two months after Musk, who bought Twitter on October 27, fired several senior executives and later roughly 3,700 employees ranging from engineers to communications workers to content moderators—half the company’s staff—on November 4.
In the absence of a communications department at Twitter, In These Times sent a request for comment to @TwitterComms, which did not respond. Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters phone number and support number were no longer active. Former Twitter staff were unresponsive when asked for information on current press contacts.
Unlike the earlier layoffs, Musk’s most recent firings target unionized workers protected under a collective bargaining agreement. Twitter’s laid-off janitorial staff are members of SEIU Local 87, the custodians union which represents 5,000 janitors in the Bay Area.
The workers who spoke with In These Times say the 20 janitors were given a week’s warning that they would be terminated once their contractor’s deal with Twitter ended on December 9, a move which in effect also permanently fired nearly 30 other custodial workers furloughed without pay earlier this year with promises of being rehired once the office reopened.
On December 5, janitors began an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike to protest the decision. The same day, Twitter terminated the janitors’ contract outright instead of waiting for it to expire four days later, immediately putting all janitors out of work. They’ve been protesting outside the building ever since.
According to Olga Miranda, SEIU Local 87’s president, many of the janitors who lost their jobs are immigrants from countries including Yemen, China, Mexico and El Salvador. The workers who spoke with In These Times all have families that depend solely on income from their work at Twitter. Victor Linares Salazar, a Salvadoran worker who has cleaned machines and kitchen utilities in the Twitter office for almost ten years, is the sole earner for his wife and 4-year-old daughter. “We all have families we have to support,” he says.
Despite the earlier rounds of layoffs at the company, custodial workers told In These Times that they were caught off guard when Twitter laid them off because many have worked for the company for years and have no other work to fall back on. “I’m extremely shocked,” says Bilal, a lead janitor who worked at Twitter for ten years (and requested only his first name be used for fear of further retaliation if workers win their jobs back). Bilal, an immigrant from Yemen, is the sole earner in his household, which includes his wife, three kids and both his parents. “Twitter was my second home,” he says.
Custodial staff are often on the front lines of workplace crises. Twitter’s janitorial staff tell In These Times that they were required to risk their health by coming in during the first years of the pandemic. Then came Musk’s chaotic takeover of the company.
“The work changed, absolutely. Everything,” says Linares Salazar of the change in ownership. Ever since Musk ordered Twitter employees back into the office full-time and imposed longer hours, he adds, janitors were unable to enter the offices to clean until 1:30 a.m. or later, when other staff left; one janitor told the BBC that after Musk bought the company, private security escorted him as he cleaned sections of the office.
In mid-November, Musk instated an “extremely hardcore” work culture at Twitter, demanding 80-hour work weeks and prompting a wave of resignations. Janitors say that afterward, some conference rooms in Twitter’s headquarters were converted into makeshift bedrooms or nurseries, with mattresses, blankets, pillows and bedside tables. “It’s not a residential building. It’s an office building,” says Musa, a Yemeni day porter lead who worked at Twitter for seven years and requested only his first name be published for fear of further retaliation. “We’re used to wiping the tables, picking up the trash, vacuuming, but we are not used to doing bedroom things.”
Musk has previously claimed he sleeps “on the floor” of his Tesla office “not because I couldn’t go across the road and be at the hotel … [but] because I wanted my circumstance to be worse than anyone else at the company on purpose.” At Twitter, Musk’s personal converted sleeping quarters resemble a luxuriously-furnished hotel room more than an office, says Linares Salazar, who believes he found himself cleaning the room on his last day on the job.
“He’s not paying any hotel taxes or Airbnb taxes specific to San Francisco,” Miranda jokes. Her criticism isn’t far off the mark; a local radio station reported that San Francisco authorities were investigating whether Twitter was violating the building’s legal code. In response, Musk tweeted that the city of San Francisco was “attack[ing] companies providing beds for tired employees.”
The BBC reported that one worker was told by a member of Musk’s team that eventually robots would take over their jobs. But according to janitorial workers In These Times spoke to, they are not easily replaceable by human employees, let alone robots. Musa says, “I think [the new contractor’s] gonna miss a lot because we were in the building for many years and we know everything.” He adds that a task that might take the new workers an hour to do, would take him and his coworkers only 20 minutes.
Janitors we spoke to believe that despite their importance to Twitter’s functioning, Musk laid them off to bust the union. “We are a union. That’s why we got fired. Because they need a non-union company,” Musa says.
Musk has a history of apparent hostility against unions. At Tesla, Musk laid off 280 unionized janitors and bus drivers near the outset of the pandemic. A California judge in 2019 and the National Labor Relations Board in 2021 ruled that as Tesla CEO, Musk was guilty of a number of unfair labor practices such as interrogating and firing union organizers, allowing security to harass union pamphleteers, and posting anti-union tweets. In August, the NLRB ruled that Tesla broke the law when it forbade factory workers from wearing clothing with pro-union logos in the workplace.
Musk has continued to face allegations of labor law violations at Twitter. In addition to a series of suits brought by employees alleging termination without proper notice, inadequate severance payments and retaliation against workers, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu’s office is looking into whether Musk is in violation of San Francisco law for refusing to rehire its janitorial staff.
Twitter’s custodial staff are committed to not letting Musk get away with it. Speaking to In These Times on a December 8 phone call made almost inaudible by strong winds, workers say they were sticking it out through the cold and rain to protest day and night outside Twitter’s headquarters. Some say they’re tired, but they remain committed to getting their jobs back. “In a union town like San Francisco we can’t let a billionaire define what a quality of life and being able to support your family means,” Miranda says. “Some people glorify [Elon Musk], but he’s really strategically stupid, and at the end of the day it will still be our members who clean up his mess.”
“He didn’t notice us when we were cleaning his offices, his pseudo bedrooms and nurseries for kids,” she adds. “He should see our faces now.”
Teddy Ostrow is a journalist from Brooklyn covering labor and economics. He is a financial correspondent for Deutsche Welle Business and his work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @TeddyOstrow.