Photo by Jack GouldAfter the sun sets, the cities of Irvine and Newport Beach go dark—with the exception of the glittering office buildings that make up their skylines, towers that look like glass-and-steel bars on a graph in some corporate boardroom.
The office buildings are full of businesses, and those businesses are busy. According to Craig Jones, an analyst with Grubb & Ellis, the county's office-space real-estate market is as strong as it has ever been, with a record-low vacancy rate of just 7.5 percent. Despite a boom in new office construction, lease rates on office space "are higher than ever and continue to rise," said Jones. "What we're seeing right now is a really strong, healthy market."
We might also soon be seeing some really messy offices if the janitors who clean those buildings fail to win a contract.
Negotiations between the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) Local 1877 and building-management companies began three months ago. At press time, they were going nowhere. Labor representatives were talking strike.
"It looks like we're heading toward a confrontation at this point," said SEIU Southern California Director Dave Stilwell, whose organization represents roughly 2,000 janitors in Orange County.
Josefina Bastida is one of 12 Orange County janitors who sit on the union side of the negotiating table. A mother of four, she has worked as a janitor for ABM for five years. Five days a week, she cleans a Bank of America office building in Brea. Thanks to her long tenure with the company, she earns $6.50 per hour—instead of the minimum wage of earned by most OC janitors. According to Bastida, the negotiations are stalled over an issue that the union feels is critical: health insurance.
"We can't live on a minimum wage," she said. "But the most serious issue for us is the lack of medical coverage for ourselves and our families. When our kids get sick, we have to give them a Tylenol or send them to the doctor. It's impossible to save any money. It's an insult that the companies won't provide medical insurance to employees who work as hard as we do."
In a Dec. 28 interview with the Weekly, Dick Davis, who represents several of the cleaning contractors, also confirmed that the talks have stalled over the issue of medical benefits.
"We're not philosophically against janitors having health and welfare insurance, but the problem is how you pay for it," said Davis. "As of now, we haven't offered that."
Davis says SEIU has "shown some flexibility" but is being unrealistic if it thinks it can win benefits for OC janitors similar to those recently won by the union in LA, where janitors are more organized. "The janitors have been organized for decades in Los Angeles," Davis explained. "Orange County is a different ball game. But hopefully all of this will get resolved."
The union is less hopeful. Stilwell said there has been almost no progress during the past month. "The only thing the companies have put forward in the past two sessions is a 10 cent-per-hour raise," he said. Stilwell alleges that in off-the-record discussions with the union, the cleaning contractors have claimed they can't offer medical benefits to OC's janitors because the building owners simply won't allow them to—an explanation the union doesn't buy.
"At some point, somebody is going to have to put their cards on the table. Either the owners are being cheapskates or the cleaning contractors are trying to lowball us," he said.
Stilwell pointed out that janitors in LA are paid up to $10 per hour, plus full medical coverage for workers and their families. "The companies are paying janitors much higher wages in LA than in OC—even though LA doesn't have nearly as strong a real-estate market as OC," he said.
According to Bastida, she and the rest of the 2,000 workers hoping for a union contract are ready for a fight. "We're ready for marches and, if necessary, a strike," she promised. "The workers are very, very angry about what's going on in the negotiations. What we're asking for isn't too much. The economy here is very strong, and we should get what we deserve."