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What Price Hygiene? 

Janitors claim building managers are treating them like dirt

Wednesday, Jul 31 1996
Cesar Mejia scrubbed the toilets, emptied the trash, waxed the floors, and generally cleaned up the residue that business left behind every night for 35 years in the International Building at 601 California St. When that was finished, he cleaned up the mess left by the patrons and the kitchen staff at Pasquale's Pizzeria Restaurant on Irving Street. He balanced the two full-time jobs without ever missing a day to support his family, sending five children to parochial school and then to college.

"I took so much time from my kids, and I'll never get it back," he says, fighting the emotion that has dropped his head to his hands.

Mejia arrived here from Nicaragua in 1960 without much by way of job skills or English. But he possessed an unwavering commitment to give his children a better life. He found his way to the union hall of the Service Employees International (SEIU) and was dispatched to the building he would clean for more than three decades.

Friday, the 60-year-old Mejia traded his broom for a bullhorn, herding hundreds of other janitors in this city -- most of them immigrants like himself -- around another office building at 101 California. They ranged from the young to those who wear a lifetime of struggle on their faces, a few still dressed in the uniforms that signify their place in San Francisco's business world. Some pushed babies in strollers, others dutifully carried the red-and-black signs reading "Justice for Janitors" as they shuffled around the building and then moved through the Financial District.

San Francisco's janitors have been at the center of a battle over control of their jobs, as the deadline loomed in contract negotiations between SEIU, Local 87, and the janitorial contractors who maintain the city's office buildings. The union represents 4,000 people or about 95 percent of the janitors in San Francisco. With no agreement expected by the deadline, midnight on the last day of July, they had vowed to walk off the job in a move that would affect most of the offices in this city. Of course, the action would likely hurt the janitors and their families more than anyone else.

"It's not something that people want to do, obviously," says Katy Nunez-Adler, an SEIU organizer. "But they don't see any alternative. They will do whatever's necessary."

Among other things, the issue has been control over hiring. The janitorial contractors --- including national and international companies such as American Building Maintenance and International Service Systems -- are backed by the Building Owners and Managers' Association (BOMA). The association -- which includes Equitable Life, the Shorenstein Co., Bank of America, and Pacific Properties, among others -- also has a contract with the janitors. BOMA and the contractors want to hire their employees directly.

This would abolish the decades-old practice of the union hall dispatching its members to fill an open position, a move that its leaders say strikes at the heart of the union and leaves the door open for discrimination and non-union hiring.

"All we want is the right to hire whomever we want," says Robert Ford, an attorney representing the contractors and building owners in negotiations. "We will keep the union clause [that employees have to be union members]. If we wanted to bust the union, we would not have kept the union clause in there. They [the union] want to control who's being placed where."

The union also wants a four-year contract that would expire in the year 2000, putting it in sync with those of San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Local 87 is at the end of a three-year contract. And, even though each local negotiates its own deal, a simultaneous campaign among janitors in every major city in California (about 50,000 workers, as opposed to 4,000 in San Francisco) would bring more muscle to the table.

And there is the matter of money. San Francisco janitors earn between $9.21 and $13.15 an hour, making them the highest-paid in California and the second-highest (behind New York City) in the country. But union officials argue that, factoring in the city's increasingly high cost of living, those figures actually represent a loss of about 17 percent from the janitors' pockets since 1989. Furthermore, the union has taken its last few increases entirely in salary, with pension plan contributions falling increasingly behind.

"Rents have increased 20 percent in the last year alone," says union President Richard Leung. "We want a decent increase that makes up for the last few years."

The two sides are still far apart on this issue. The contractors have offered up an increase of 10 cents an hour the first year and 15 cents in each of the following two years. Meanwhile, the union wants an annual increase of 65 cents an hour in salary and 20 cents in pension contributions, which amounts to about a 5 percent increase.

"I don't think it's unreasonable for them to make $13 an hour," says Ford. "We're not going to pay [the proposed increase] for four years."

The average wage, according to the union, is $10.20 an hour.
"The employers are attacking the top tier and want to bring in people at the bottom of the scale," counters the SEIU's Nunez-Adler. "It's a divide-and-conquer strategy. Building owners have been earning record profits. The real estate business is doing very well. What they're proposing is far lower than inflation."

The employers currently pick up the entire cost of health insurance premiums for their janitors and the janitors' dependents, a benefit that the workers may lose. The contractors have proposed a cap on the benefits, after which any increase would be split between the janitors and the employers.

In another industry, this might be sniping over small potatoes. But the problem here is greater than whether building managers and real estate owners are willing to share the wealth of boom years. In a population of janitors largely comprising immigrant workers and single parents, every penny is significant.

That's what brought Mary Mixon out of the office building and into the union business, where she's now spending most of her time. For 12 years, Mixon scrubbed toilets, washed dishes, and set tables for executive meetings in the Transamerica Building. Mixon, who is 53, supports the four grandchildren who live with her on the $1,520 she takes home each month. Her first and second mortgage payments alone total nearly $1,000. Utility and grocery bills take up most of the rest.

While that's hardly the fault of either janitorial contractors or BOMA, it is the reality of San Francisco. And it's serious enough for the same people who work virtually unseen every night to risk the rent check for a better deal.

"I'll walk for the single moms who need that," says Mixon. "They're working to get out of the system. I can't afford it, but I'll do it."

The strikers would begin bearing that burden on Aug. 1. The question is for how long.

"We'll continue to operate and keep the buildings clean," says negotiator Ford. "The people that are going to be hurt are the workers who aren't there.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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