Invisible workers

After successful organizing efforts, Justice for Janitors turns its attention to winning amnesty for illegals

Justice for Janitors took to the streets of Sacramento on June 15.

Justice for Janitors took to the streets of Sacramento on June 15.

photo by Larry Dalton

When Maria de la Paz (not her real name) arrived in the United States three years ago, she anticipated her quest for a better life for herself and her two children would involve some hardship.

She knew she’d face a struggle learning English and consequently have difficulties finding work and wading through the bureaucracy to gain legal status.

She was prepared for these challenges, and paid a “coyote” $3,000 to help her and her son cross the border from her native Mexico. But she wasn’t prepared for an economic system that dangled all the fruits of hard work in front of her but didn’t allow her to ever taste them.

De la Paz is one of about 2,000 immigrants in the Sacramento area working as a janitor. They pay taxes for Social Security, schools and to the federal government, yet they can’t buy homes, obtain a state driver’s license or even open a checking account.

“If workers are undocumented, their supervisors know,” said Guillermo Durgin, an organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 in Sacramento. “It justifies them exploiting people and the supervisors have a free ticket to sexual harassment.”

About 100 of the union’s members and another 150 supporters recently marked National Justice for Janitors Day, marching from the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to the state Capitol. Nationwide, similar rallies took place in San Francisco, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City.

De la Paz says she knows firsthand the horrors of exploitation. The janitorial industry is not 100 percent unionized in the capital corridor, and for many immigrants, working for a non-union company can be a ticket to exploitation.

For two years, she worked for Sutter Building Maintenance Co. cleaning offices at 555 Capitol Mall. She says she was ordered to do extra work without overtime pay, denied breaks and not provided any benefits or vacation time. Her hourly wages, she claims, were below the U.S. minimum wage. A company spokesperson denied each allegation.

“Let’s be very clear. The majority of janitors are undocumented because an Anglo is not going to do that type of job for those wages. They’re going to try to get welfare or food stamps,” de la Paz said.

De la Paz was among the five janitors who filed a class action suit against the company. While she was allegedly threatened with deportation and termination, de la Paz says she persevered. When her colleagues saw she was not being fired, many decided to follow her.

“I could have quit at the beginning of the intimidation and threats campaign, but I stayed to lead other janitors,” de la Paz said. “Many are afraid they would lose their jobs to other undocumented workers who don’t know their rights.”

For small or mid-sized maintenance companies, becoming the target of a union campaign ultimately leaves them no choice but to negotiate, says Coleen Ung, operations manager for Sutter Building Maintenance Co., which currently employs about 38 janitors. And that campaign can mean job losses for both the maintenance company and janitors.

“Small- and medium-sized businesses do not have the deep pockets that larger firms and unions have,” Ung said. “We don’t have a lot of fallback.”

Sutter Building is about to finalize a master contract with the union. As of June 27, only some rephrasing had to be approved before both sides would add their signatures, according to Ung.

The contract specifies wages, generally beginning at minimum wage, as well as an amount for annual raises, averaging a total of 80 cents over the life of the contract. Full-time workers have the right to individual health benefits, five paid holidays, and vacation pay of up to three weeks after five years.

The goal of offering a master contract is to streamline working conditions and salary throughout the industry. Companies like American Building Maintenance Janitorial Services and One Source Building Services, Shine Building Maintenance, Able Building Maintenance and Metro Maintenance also accepted terms of a master contract in late 1999.

Local 1877 SEIU came to Sacramento in March 1995. Since then, about 1,000 janitors in Sacramento now work under contract. Durgin says the union has managed to negotiate a contract with every company it has organized against, even though, in the case of companies like Somers Building Maintenance, the legal battle took years and the expenses totaled millions.

When the union targets a company, the tactics include being visible and vocal, something most janitors aren’t. Picketing locations where the company has a maintenance account often can scare away customers and employees, Ung says.

“During the campaign, we lost some accounts because people were afraid to get caught up in it,” she said. “We retained some when the aggressive campaigning stopped and clients realized we were in negotiations with the union.”

Ung flatly denies any claims of maltreatment against employees. She also says that if employees are illegal aliens, they must have fairly sophisticated false documentation.

“We get their Social Security numbers, their green cards, residency cards—we have to check it for everybody, whether they are white, blue or polka dot,” Ung said. “We call and verify Social Security numbers. If they are obviously fake, we will say ‘we can’t hire you,’ but we have to be very careful because we could be accused of discrimination.”

The market’s demand for low-paid workers has made a cottage industry out of falsified documents, which de la Paz has used to get and keep all of her jobs in the United States. In the wake of successful organizing efforts, Justice for Janitors and SEIU officials are now urging an amnesty program that acknowledges the vital role illegal immigrants play in the California economy.

“It would change my life completely. I could look for day work. I could drive, be home at night with my kids and not have to search for babysitters,” she said. “I could go visit my family and instead of paying a ‘coyote’ $3,000, I could help my family. I could buy a house.”

Several bills currently pending in Congress would roll back registration dates so that people who have been here at least five years would gain legal status. While the Federation for American Immigration Reform opposes amnesty, saying it would encourage more illegal immigration, de la Paz says the immigration will never stop until Mexico has a stronger economy.

“It’s like gun control or drug or prostitution laws,” she said, “they’re never going to be able to stop it.”