Legislating ‘justice for janitors’

June 7, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — California legislators are routinely approached by special interest groups to carry legislation—this is not news. The news is what that legislation is, and who it benefits.

An Assembly Concurrent Resolution was in the Labor Committee Wednesday. Normally, resolutions seem meaningless, or feel-good, but the “Justice for Janitors in California” is no meaningless piece of legislation. This is advocacy and even smacks of campaign fodder.

ACR 155, by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Pacoima,  is sponsored by the Service Employees International Union — United Service Workers West.

The SEIU explained in the bill:

“In California, SEIU United Services Workers West (SEIU-USWW) represents 18,000 janitors in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. The majority of these workers are recent immigrants. Through past contract fights janitors have lifted wages out of poverty, achieved full employer-paid family health insurance, job security, full-time work opportunities, training programs and worker retention.”

But don’t think they are being altruistic. The bill continues:

“SEIU-USWW has joined with the cleaning contractors and their clients to create programs to work towards improving the industry as a whole. The Building Skills Partnership (BSP) helps immigrant workers obtain language and computers skills through worksite-based classes. The Maintenance Contractors Trust Fund (MCTF) works with the state to help enforce labor laws,” 

Before the Assembly Labor Committee Wednesday, Fuentes, the same legislator who recently pushed through a legislative resolution for National Coupon Month, said that his resolution was “to recognize the importance of janitors’ struggle in California.”

“Janitors deserve decent wages,” Fuentes said. “We need to fight for justice and equality for all working families.”

The committee room was filled with people wearing SEIU-USWW T-shirts, and several witnesses spoke in Spanish in support of Fuentes’s bill, with the help of a translator.

A succession of labor union representatives spoke in support of ACR 155, including the SEIU, California Labor Federation, the Peace and Freedom Party and Bill Camp, a notorious Sacramento AFL-CIO representative.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, told of how his grandfather worked in the fields for many years, then later as a janitor, a story he often repeats in committee hearings.

But as Alejo told about the injustices of working as a janitor, he never acknowledged that it was his grandfather, an immigrant, who made it possible for Alejo to grow up in California, attend California public schools and graduate college and law school. He never did explain what the injustice is by working as a janitor.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, spoke in Spanish to the union workers without the translator, and then complimented Camp. “You are a labor warrior for us all,” Yamada told Camp. “I saw you on the front page of the Sacramento Bee with zip ties on your hands,” Yamada added, smiling.

“For over two decades, SEIU’s Justice for Janitors movement has helped poverty-wage workers achieve a better life. Using market-wide master contracts, SEIU has organized 225,000 janitors in more than 30 cities throughout North America.”

Within the bill, the SEIU described the history of “Justice for Janitors Day”:

“The original Justice for Janitors Day was established after janitors in Los Angeles organizing for dignified wages and affordable health care were beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration on June 15, 1990. The incident generated intense public outrage and resulted in the cleaning contractor recognizing the L.A. janitors in a union. In remembrance of that monumental day, SEIU janitors and supporters take action every June 15 in cities nationwide.”

Watch for additional legislation, or contract disputes about beefing up pay, benefits or pensions for SEIU janitors.

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