Will janitors strike in S.D.?

June 4, 2012

THE LABOR agreement covering more than 1,800 janitors in San Diego County expired May 31, but workers remain on the job--at least for another week--as union negotiators seek a new contract with improvements in wages and health care benefits.

Negotiations continued right through the midnight deadline, and according to union staffers, most of the janitorial companies, with the exception of a small number of key ones, agreed to the contract.

If the companies still haven't agreed to a contract within a week, the janitors will strike, according to SEIU United Service Workers West (USWW), the union that represents the janitors. If they do strike, janitors across San Diego, and possibly in all of California, will walk out--but only if they work for one of the companies that will not agree to the new contract.

"Our major goal is to have access for affordable family health insurance in the suburbs and to be able to put some money in our members' pockets," said Sandra Díaz, the USWW's lead negotiator. "There has to be responsibility from industries for contracted-out workers, the people who do the work every single day."

The San Diego Imperial County Labor Council has sanctioned the strike. As a result, union members, like Teamster-represented UPS workers, are expected to not cross the janitors' picket lines.

Janitors in San Diego County are primarily immigrants and earn an average of $17,000 a year. With the exception of janitors in downtown San Diego, they do not have affordable health care coverage for family members. They typically work late at night in areas with limited public transportation and often at some of the largest commercial real estate and high-tech companies in San Diego.

The union has been organizing marches and rallies at various locations throughout the county to support the workers. In addition, brigades of about 100 union workers and their supporters have been driving to the different work sites to picket for about five to 10 minutes before moving on to the next one. These have been spirited marches with a clear message: sign the contract. Popular chants include "An injury to one is an injury to all" (in Spanish, of course) and "¡Huelga, huelga!" (Strike, strike!).

The union has three chief demands: 1) a wage increase of 25 cents per hour in the first year, 25 cents per hour in the second, and 40 cents for each of the last two years of a four-year contract; 2) an extension of family health care to the suburbs; and 3) immigration protection ("protección de migrantes").

"First, the contractors tried to use the economy as an excuse for the bad contract," said Silva Monroy, one of the janitors covered by the contract. "But they have always given us very small raises. In the two strikes I have been through, we haven't even been able to get $2. This [is] already old--and now they are only offering us 10 cents. That's not fair, and that's not right. We work hard to not get a decent wage."

"The contractors don't want to pay a fair wage," said Maria, another USWW worker. "They think the worker can live with a little, but we have the same necessities they do. We don't have new cars, but we do have our necessities, and they just want us to be happy with a low wage."

Maria points out that if the workers decide to take action, the communities that workers live and work in can be mobilized to defend the strikers. "They've supported us, the community has always supported us," she said. "A lot of people have helped."

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