Cleaning House

Photo by Jack GouldIt's nearly 4 p.m.—just an hour from quitting time for most 9-to-5-ers. But in a densely populated barrio near downtown Santa Ana, Salome Torres is still at home, recuperating from the night before.

Salome doesn't get much sleep these days. He works all night as a janitor in Newport Beach; during the day, he tries to sleep in the tiny one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and their three small children. And in just an hour, Salome will be at work in one of Orange County's glass-and-concrete skyscrapers. He'll work there—without so much as a 15-minute break—until 3 a.m.

Both Salome and his wife, Maria Isabel, have been janitors for more than six years. He is one of the lucky ones: he earns $7.25 per hour, far more than the $5.75 minimum wage paid most janitors in Orange County. But Maria Isabel isn't earning anything: she recently quit her job to help take care of their infant son, Aaron Salome. Like all nonunion janitors, neither enjoys health insurance, paid vacation time or sick leave. Almost all of their paycheck goes toward the rent.

Which helps explain why, despite the fact that he'd probably rather be asleep, Salome is spending the last free moments of his afternoon playing host to Vladimir Dominguez, a Salvadoran-born organizer with Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU represents thousands of janitors throughout California; Dominguez is one of a handful of organizers with SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, which came to Orange County six months ago with the goal of unionizing the roughly 2,000 janitors who each night clean the glittering skyscrapers towering over the business districts of Newport Beach and Irvine.

After a brief meeting with Salome and Maria Isabel, Dominguez leaves their apartment and drives to the parking lot of an office building in Newport Beach. It's about 5 p.m., and an army of suit-and-tie office workers is leaving for the day. Waiting for Dominguez on a bench in front of the building is a young janitor and union supporter named Ricardo. He's wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the letters USA; he's just gotten off the bus from Costa Mesa.

Ricardo says he starts his shift at 5:30 p.m. and vacuums floors until 11:30 each weekday night. Then he walks several blocks to another building in Newport Beach and does the same thing from midnight to 6 a.m. He sends most of his paycheck to his wife in Guadalajara, Mexico.

As Ricardo talks, other bleary-eyed janitors huddle nearby, waiting to enter the building. The oldest of them, floor supervisor Andres Sosa, says he earns just $6.50 per hour despite working for the same company for 10 years. He was briefly fired last month after coming out in favor of a union; managers claimed he wasn't doing a good job; The next day, Dominguez and a group of other union-supporting janitors walked up to a supervisor and demanded that Sosa get his job back. He was rehired that same day.

Just before the group breaks up to go to work, Dominguez conducts an impromptu survey, asking how many of them work three jobs per day. One incredibly worn-out janitor who looks about 18 years old raises his hand. Two jobs? About five hands go up. When Dominguez asks which janitors won't be finished working until the sun goes up the following morning, every hand goes sky-high.

According to "Poverty Amidst Prosperity," a report issued last week by SEIU, the typical Orange County janitor earns $4,500 less than his Los Angeles counterpart. That's no mere coincidence: SEIU has spent the past decade unionizing LA's janitors. Thanks to a pay increase won during the union's high-profile citywide strike in April, a unionized janitor in downtown Los Angeles now earns $7.90 per hour plus full family health coverage. That's more than most OC janitors make after 10 or even 20 years with the same company. Indeed, most OC janitors earn only minimum wage. At these meager wages, SEIU says, "both parents in a household must each work two full-time janitorial jobs in order to meet a basic family budget."

The report helps explain why Justice for Janitors has found Orange County so easy to organize—at least so far. In just six months, the union says, a majority of the county's commercial janitors have signed union-authorization cards saying they want to join SEIU Local 1877.

"It's been a very easygoing campaign so far," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877. "Janitors in Orange County are ready for a change. They've been very receptive to our organizing drive, and there has been no anti-union campaign on behalf of the building owners or maintenance companies that we know of."

Garcia says Justice for Janitors hopes to reach a union agreement with Orange County building owners by the end of the month.

That said, Garcia doesn't have any illusions about building owners simply rolling over and allowing workers to win union membership without a fight. "We are committed to an energetic and hard-hitting unionization campaign in Orange County," he promised. "We will be here as long as it takes to bring justice to the janitors of Orange County."

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