Yo Quiero Contract

Photo by Jack GouldA strange thing happened on the morning of March 31 in downtown Irvine. In the imposing shadow of the Taco Bell world headquarters on Von Karman Avenue, about 50 janitors stood on the sidewalk. Stranger still: the janitors were surrounded by a gaggle of reporters—including a camera crew from OCN—while they chanted "Si, se puede! Si, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") at the top of their lungs. Within moments, a Taco Bell representative was on hand to ask what the crowd wanted from Taco Bell.

"Oh, we're just holding a press conference," someone answered.

But the real answer to Taco Bell's question was emblazoned on the front of each of the red T-shirts that decorated the crowd that sunny, windy morning: "Justice for Janitors."

In fact, the seemingly impromptu press conference officially marked the long-awaited start of the Justice for Janitors campaign in Orange County—a massive, high-profile effort to organize the men and women who clean some of the largest office buildings in Orange County, including the Taco Bell building. As is standard in the cleaning industry, janitors are not employed by the owners of the buildings they clean but by nationwide—and, in some cases, multinational—cleaning contractors such as American Building Maintenance and Onesource.

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Despite this, the "JfJ" campaign, as union activists call it, has a reputation for taking its struggle on behalf of janitors directly to the doorstep of building owners such as Taco Bell—as evidenced by the location of the March 31 press conference. Union organizers hope that by involving building owners in their campaign, they can pressure cleaning contractors to negotiate with the union—or risk a prolonged series of disruptive lunch-time demonstrations.

The use of such tactics has helped make JfJ the most aggressive and highly visible union organizing effort since the 1930s and 1940s, when John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations supervised labor's so-called "great leap forward." Managed through the nation's largest and fastest-growing union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), JfJ has its roots in SEIU Local 1877's successful effort 10 years ago to organize what had once been considered a non-organizable work force: immigrant Latinos who cleaned office buildings in LA and Century City.

SEIU Local 1877 now represents 70 percent of LA-area janitors; its members earn between $6.80 and $7.80 per hour—well more than the current minimum wage of $5.75 per hour. Unlike nonunion janitors, they also receive full medical coverage for their families, sick days and paid vacations. On top of that, they have the right to strike. Unionized janitors in LA have been negotiating a so-called "master contract" with 18 separate cleaning contractors. On April 3, they began walking off the job, three days after their contract expired.

According to Blanca Gallegos, SEIU Local 1877's spokeswoman, union organizers began meeting with Orange County janitors a month ago.

"Orange County is the last sprawling business area in California that hasn't been unionized," Gallegos said. "Janitors in Orange County are still making minimum wage and have no health benefits, no paid vacation and no sick leave. There aren't any job protections, there's no seniority and no way of reporting abuses on the job.

"What we are finding with janitors is that they are readily open to speaking with organizers and to unionizing," she continued. "It's because they live so close to LA, and they see very clearly how much difference a union can make in their working conditions."

"These workers are not even getting paid minimum wage," said SEIU Local 1877 president Mike Garcia. "They are consistently underpaid by multibillion-dollar cleaning-contractor corporations."

Garcia said Local 1877 has already filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over the treatment of janitors in Orange County. He said the union has spoken with janitors who have seen children working alongside their parents to help keep up with the fast pace of the job—a clear violation of child-labor laws. "It's just horrible, but this is what we find in our industry where there's no union," Garcia said.

Several Orange County janitors also spoke at the press conference. Chief among their complaints was the fact that they are paid only minimum wage for eight hours of daily work that can only be described as backbreaking. But another common refrain involves the abuses janitors suffer at the hands of their supervisors.

"The employers say that if we help the union and the union doesn't win the election, we'll all lose our jobs," said Tomas de los Angeles, a janitor who works in Newport Beach. He added that most OC janitors want to unionize because almost everyone is forced to work at least two jobs in order to put food on their tables. "They know they can achieve better living conditions with the union," he said.

"We all support the union because we want to improve our working conditions," said Blanca Reza, a janitor who works near Fashion Island, as she cradled her young child in one arm. "It's almost impossible to live on the wages they pay us. We all have to work two jobs, so it's impossible for us to care for our kids. We can't even watch over them."

The event brought together various labor and community leaders, most notably Nativo Lopez, executive director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Santa Ana-based immigrant-aid organization, and Amin David, president of Anaheim-based Los Amigos of Orange County.

Rick Eiden, director of organizing for the United Food & Commercial Workers Union and the new president of Orange County's Central Labor Council, was also on hand to officially welcome the Justice for Janitors campaign to Orange County. Eiden told the janitors that organized labor is experiencing a newfound energy here, as evidenced by the recent signing of so-called "Project Labor Agreements" with the county Board of Supervisors and the Santa Ana Unified School District.

"But that is not enough," Eiden said. "We need the movement that Justice for Janitors brings to this county. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the janitors in your fight."

Eiden's message drew cheers from the crowd and even a heartfelt round of "Si, se puede." But the crowd's favorite speaker was clearly Lopez, who is also a member of the Santa Ana school board. Lopez said he spoke on behalf of fellow board members John Palacio and Nadia Davis when he said, "We are on your side and will be with you to the end."

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