Janitors kick off contract campaign

OAKLAND, Calif. — Janitors represented by Service Employees International Union held coordinated actions around California late last week as they kicked off their campaign to win new union master contracts covering workers in southern and northern California. The current contracts expire April 30.

Among key demands, as workers marched and rallied here, in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and other cities, are higher wages, access to affordable health care and respect.

SEIU, which represents 20,000 California janitors who clean commercial office buildings, high tech and biotech offices around the state, says wages are so low that many workers are forced to live in single rooms, mobile homes and even garages. The union says Los Angeles and Oakland janitors working full time currently earn an average of $23,000 per year, less than half the nearly $51,000 the Economic Policy Institute says a California family needs to meet basic requirements without government help. Sacramento janitors average only about $17,680 per year.

“We need for the companies not just to give us what they want to give us, but what we deserve as workers in this city and state — better health insurance, a living wage, better benefits including a vacation,” janitor Nicolasa Mendez told her fellow workers gathered near City Center in downtown Oakland. “But the most important thing here is that we need to be able to take our kids to the doctor when they get sick. We can’t wait to take them until we have enough money to pay the doctor.”

Under their current contract, janitors in Oakland, Sacramento and San Jose must wait 30 months to be eligible for family health coverage.

Alfredo Lahud, a janitor in Oakland City Center area office buildings for the past 10 years, emphasized the need for better wages. “In the last five years, the companies have given us almost nothing,” he told the World. “But everything has gone up.”

Lahud added that besides cutting the waiting time for family health coverage, workers are also calling for lower co-pays and improved benefits.

Work loads are another issue, he said. “When workers call in sick or are on vacation, some companies and supervisors never put additional workers on the job, they just spread the work around among those who are still on the job.”

Among key janitorial service contractors are ABM/One Source, Able Janitorial Services and Somers Building Maintenance, Inc. Major clients include high tech firms such as Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Genentech as well as real estate giant Shorenstein and the State of California.

The California janitors can take heart from some year-end developments on the opposite coast. Just before the New Year, SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents some 85,000 property workers in six states, announced that workers in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and nearby areas had won significant wage increases as well as better health benefits including family prescription drug coverage. At the same time, New York City office cleaners won 16 percent pay increases over four years as well as improved pension benefits.