December 21, 2001

Janitors Sweep Through Horton Plaza

On December 8, Horton Plaza holiday shoppers saw a different side of the wealthy "Shoppingtown" as members of the Justice for Janitors campaign protested against poverty wages and the recent beating of a union organizer by mall security. Organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 2028, the group included janitors, their families, and community supporters from the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (ICWJ), the Students for Economic Justice (SEJ), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and other labor unions.

Justice for Janitors campaigned against poverty wages and the recent beating of a union organizer by mall security.

The protest marked the most recent in a series of Justice for Janitors actions targeting cleaning contractor Encompass/Building One Services (BOS) with employees at Westfield America Inc.-owned shopping malls. Janitors who clean UTC, North County Fair, El Camino Real, and Parkway Plaza have been organizing since March for improved wages, benefits, and respect on the job.

When BOS took over Westfield's cleaning contract in September, workers were promised things would change. That they did. Six janitors were fired without cause or notice, and while the workforce was reduced, the workload increased. The Union is currently investigating alleged paycheck shortages and other potential wage and hour violations. BOS has already had its records seized by the government in Los Angeles as part of an investigation into wage, tax, and insurance fraud. Among the allegations is "theft of labor" - severely underpaying workers.

Some of these janitors, many with their husbands or wives and small children, attended Saturday's demonstration. Ana Maria Pantoja, a long-time Horton Plaza janitor and one of the unemployed, urged the crowd in Spanish not to falter in their struggle for fair wages and better treatment.

BOS, part of the $4 billion Encompass empire, currently pays workers $6.50 per hour without guaranteed benefits. Janitors are expected to work holidays with no extra compensation. Westfield, a $12 billion multinational corporation, recently told the ICWJ that it chose BOS because of its superior employee benefits, including retirement, health insurance, and stock options. None of these benefits have materialized. Besides, stock options would be of little use to someone who earns $6.50 an hour.

Ana Maria and her son.

By being a non-union company and paying workers poorly, BOS positions itself to underbid better-paying union competitors, and as a result can win highly sought after contracts like Westfield's.

"At the heart of this demonstration lies the fact that these companies, valued at over $16 billion dollars, can easily afford to pay and treat workers fairly," says Mary Grillo, SEIU 2028's Executive Director. "It's especially outrageous that they exploit hard-working people and their families during the holiday season."

Further outraging the community was the violent assault on a well-known Union organizer last month. Ernesto Guerrero was beaten and kicked by seven mall security guards for distributing leaflets outside Horton Plaza. Afterward, a guard accidentally revealed that the plaza's security cameras had captured the entire incident. Guerrero has filed charges, but as of press time, Westfield management had ignored all requests from police and the Union's attorney to hand over the videotape. Guerrero, who spent the evening of the beating in the emergency room, says simply, "Obviously, they have something to hide." As part of the demonstration, the crowd jammed into the plaza's security area, letting loose purple balloons and chanting "Justice… NOW!"

SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign is a nationwide movement with wide support for the janitors. The San Diego community's support has been escalating since last year's month-long strike that resulted in unprecedented gains like family health insurance. The SEJ and the ICWJ have organized their own successful actions, including SEJ's UCSD campaign and the ICWJ's ongoing vigils at Westfield malls. In addition, SEIU is a local and national leader in the battle to win immigration reform that reflects the enormous contributions of immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status, to the United States' social and economic life.

The Union uses tactics popularized by Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., like hunger strikes, pilgrimages, and mass demonstrations. While the Union represents 1500 janitors downtown, in the suburbs and at the airport, over 1000 janitors in the county, like those at Westfield's malls, still labor without the benefits and protections of a Union contract. The campaign's mission is to win rights, raises, and respect for the predominately Latino immigrant workforce ¡SI SE PUEDE!

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