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Photo by Jack GouldOrange County's reputation as right-wing and anti-union suffered a nasty blow on Jan. 13, when approximately 200 janitors okayed the county's first-ever union contract—after an organizing campaign that lasted less than a year.
Union officials say the contract—which will provide a wage increase, vacation time, sick leave and health insurance to roughly 3,000 janitors over the next three years—is the strongest initial contract ever won by the union. Until now, most of Orange County's janitors have been paid only minimum wage with no vacation or employment benefits of any kind. Under the new contract, unionized janitors will soon enjoy a wage increase of more than $1 per hour, one to three weeks of paid vacation per year, six paid holidays, and a legally-binding union grievance and arbitration process.
Most important perhaps, the contract is scheduled to expire on May 1, 2003—the same date as similar contracts in LA, San Francisco and other cities expire. That timing will give the union added leverage at the next round of contract negotiations. That year, OC's unionized janitors will also begin receiving 100 percent company-paid medical insurance.
"Today is a tremendous day in history," said Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877. "This has been the fastest Justice for Janitors campaign in the history of the entire country—and it's the best first contract in the history of our union. Orange County was a place we were told was an anti-union, right-wing bastion. But we did it—we won a great contract!"
However, the new contract does not cover all Orange County janitors. Several companies employing several hundred janitors have yet to recognize the union. "We're calling on those companies to come to an agreement with the janitors," said Blanca Gallegos, Local 1877's communications director. "By the time we organize those companies' workers, the majority of Orange County's janitorial industry will be unionized. This is a stepping stone."
The vote to ratify the contract took place in the basement of the Santa Ana offices of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, which also houses the Orange County office of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Standing quietly against a wall as the crowd chanted, "Sí, se puede" ("Yes, we can") was Salome Torres, a janitor who served on the union's bargaining committee after joining the union six months ago (see "Cleaning House," Sept. 15). Torres said he joined Justice for Janitors because of his decade-long experience working for a cleaning contractor.
"All my compañeros were always having to work more hours than they were being paid," Torres asserted. "The company never paid for any holidays, and I didn't get one week of vacation during my 10 years there. And every day, I would work two hours of overtime without being paid. That's why I joined the union."
Dignitaries—including Catholic Monsignor Jaime Soto, state Senator Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove), Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove)—were on hand to help celebrate the victory. Sanchez told the Weekly that ratification of the contract was "a monumental achievement" for both the janitors and Orange County.
"In an area like Orange County, [where it] costs so much to live, it's a necessity to have better wages and health benefits," she said. "I have to hand it the building owners for coming to an accord with the janitors so quickly. There are a lot of owners who stayed out of the negotiations, but we do have responsible owners that did come to the table, and that really helped."
Garcia was much less sanguine about how the union won the contract. "We were threatening to leave the negotiating table and strike," he explained. "I think the companies realized they had nothing to gain if that happened. They just wanted this whole thing to be over."