Photo by OCW staffFourteen janitors walked off their jobs on Sept. 6 at Chapman University, taking part in a one-day strike capped by a rally that drew roughly 100 people, including several faculty members from the private institution in Orange.
Many demonstrators held signs stating "Pacific Is Unfair," a reference to Pacific Building Care, the cleaning contractor that employs the janitors. Since May, Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been trying to organize Chapman's janitors into a union. SEIU is also organizing several other Orange County locations serviced by Pacific Building Care, including an Edwards Theater in Irvine and the Santa Ana headquarters of health-care company PacifiCare. But so far, Chapman has been the main focus of SEIU's organizing campaign.
The union's first protest at Chapman occurred in May, when a janitor was briefly suspended, allegedly in retaliation for his pro-union activities. After the union enlisted the support of several university faculty members and staged an hour-long demonstration the janitor got his job back.
A day before last week's protest, Karl Reitz, chairman of Chapman's sociology department, said he and several other faculty members held another meeting with Chapman administrators in an unsuccessful attempt to get the university to help bring Pacific Building Care to the negotiating table. (On Sept. 9, Chapman's convocation day, Reitz and math professor Luis Ortiz-Franco convinced about 30 fellow faculty members to wear purple armbands on their academic robes in a show of solidarity for the janitors.)
"One of Chapman's first principles is to work toward a more just world," Reitz said. "These janitors only earn $15,000 per year, which means they have to depend on the public for their housing and food. That doesn't meet any standard of justice. These people work full time, and in Orange County, you can't survive on $15,000 per year. Why should the public be subsidizing Chapman University workers with food stamps, health care and subsidized housing?"
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All 14 janitors who walked off their jobs were at the protest. The remaining demonstrators were mostly janitors from elsewhere in Orange County who were successfully organized by SEIU two years ago, when the union won several thousand new members during a campaign that lasted just six months. Because the demonstration at Chapman occurred during lunchtime on a Friday afternoon, most of the university's students were busy trying to get off-campus.
Shortly before the protest ended, a pair of students walking past the demonstration seemed to sum up the apathy that continues to characterize Chapman's student body, at least when it comes to the organizing rights of the janitors who clean their classrooms.
"Is there something wrong with these people?" one of them asked, looking at her friend.
"I don't know what the hell's going on," he replied.