Off to Meet the Wizard of Irvine Co.

Apparently there were 500 of them, a swarm of janitors in purple and yellow t-shirts making their way around the sprawling headache known lovingly as South Coast Plaza. They were scheduled to gather at noon on the corner of Sunflower and Bristol and then march to some undisclosed location and hold a rally. This would be the second march this week, a big gathering of unionized janitors calling for fair wages before next week's negotiations with the notorious B-R-E-N (Don, of Irvine Co.) and to show some love for the janitors up in L.A. who were on the verge of striking but are negotiating as we speak. I was held up at another meeting further down south, so I arrived at the corner 45 minutes late. I found nothing. It was multi-lane madness: a shitload of cars, and not a single human in sight.


The only human I did see, and who I stopped to talk to, was the ubiquitous sign-waving corner guy. Did you see some protesters? I asked in Spanish. Por alla, he said, and pointed up Bristol toward the 405. I followed the one clue I had, drove and drove, up and down, around and around, past Bloomingdales, past Sears, through surrounding business parks. I called the SEIU (Service Employees International Union ) spokesperson, sent an email, wandered. Nothing.

When I could bear the weight of the bloated mall no longer, I retreated. The press release had indicated a march, but didn't say anything about where that march would end. Note to SEIU: this detail is crucial for us media folk who tend to run from one interview to the next over expansive, overcrowded highways, making us late more often than we'd care to admit. I felt stupid, but had incurred enough mall sag to want to run away and never ever look back.

I made my way back to the OCW offices and noticed a dozen or so purple people talking and laughing outside the SEIU Local 1877 offices, which are across the street from ours. Go figure. I'd found them. I stopped in. We were there!, they told me. 500 of us! They seemed exuberant, optimistic. I talked for a moment with Maria del Carmen Gomez, a pretty 40-year-old Anaheim janitor with freckles. She, along with a few other janitors and SEIU reps, will meet with Don Bren early next week to negotiate a wage that will allow the zillion janitors in the county who keep the office parks, malls, restaurants, etc. spotless to do more than just barely eek out a living in this pricey county. She has three kids and $8.65 an hour just doesn't cut it. (The state minimum wage is $8/hour; Irvine passed a $10 living wage ordinance for city contracts last year) . The last time a new contract was negotiated was in 2005 and the current contract expired April 30th.

But, like my colleague and cubicle-neighbor Gustavo said a few days back: Good luck, guys. Chances that Bren will up the ante and help those who clean his buildings be able to afford to live in them, is pretty grim (he resisted paying child support to his own kids, remember?). The optimism Gomez and another janitor, Julian Garcia, exhibited was nearly heartbreaking: Dorothy and the Tin Man off to meet their fate with the Wizard. But their eyes weren't blinded by stars. “We're negotiating in good faith,” said Gomez. “But if the final offer doesn't meet our requirements for a living wage, then we will strike as a final resort.”

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