David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Sacramento Janitors 11-Day March for Justice
by David Bacon

SACRAMENTO, CA (2/21/98) -- This week, Sacramento janitors took their long-running war to end their poverty-level wages and conditions to the doorstep of the corporation they hold responsible for them - Hewlett-Packard Corp. Starting February 14, a committed band of 40 union activists began walking from the state capitol to the company's annual shareholders meeting 150 miles away in Cupertino.

Through eleven rough days of some of the most violent rainstorms in the state's history, the marchers trekked beside freeways and through the working-class towns of the delta and eastern Bay Area. High winds swept through their line, blowing out their red umbrellas and tearing their plastic raincoats to shreds by the time the march was half-completed.

They called their journey a peregrinacion, or pilgrimage for justice. Marchers were met almost daily by rallies of other union members, students, religious activists and community supporters. On Tuesday, they arrived at the Flint Center in Cupertino, where janitors holding proxy votes told shareholders during the annual meeting that they insisted the company respect their right to organize.

The union for Sacramento janitors, Service Employees Local 1877, has been locked in an almost epic struggle to win a union contract at Somers Building Maintenance, the capitol's largest building service company with 1000 employees. Hewlett-Packard is Somers' largest client, using the firm to clean five of its Sacramento-area buildings.

"Even though I work full time, I only earn $12,500 per year," explained Somers janitor and marcher Marta Villalobos. "I have no health insurance for my four kids, and my husband and I live in fear that any unexpected illness will put us on the street."

Somers workers were joined by fellow janitors from around the state, who took time off work to walk with them. "Low wages and conditions in Sacramento affect us in Los Angeles," said Local 1877 member Alfredo Rodriguez. "If we support our brothers and sisters at Somers, our union will be stronger, and we'll all benefit."

In 1989 Rodriguez was beaten by Los Angeles police, who charged a march of janitors trying to organize a union in Century City. "I learned then how important it is for us to stick together," he said.

Somers workers began signing Local 1877 union cards in the spring of 1995. Organizers explained to them that the local had won better wages in Silicon Valley, Alameda County and Los Angeles by organizing a majority of building service companies. Previously, these contractors competed against each other, trying to win cleaning contracts with large building owners by cutting wages and benefits. Union agreements standardized wages, taking them out of competition.

After winning workers' support, Local 1877 asked Somers to acknowledge that a majority had signed union cards, and recognize the union. The union sought to avoid the legal process administered by the National Labor Relations Board, since it normally involves lengthy delays and legal battles, company intimidation of workers, and firings.

The company refused. According to its spokesperson Randall Schaber, Somers insisted on a labor board election, and hired the west coast's best-known anti-union law firm, Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy. "Our employees don't want a union at all," Schaber told this reporter at the time.

While refusing to recognize Local 1877, an ex-supervisor began going through the buildings at night, collecting signatures on cards for Couriers and Service Employees Local 1, a hitherto unknown union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. After a few weeks, Somers management told workers it had recognized Local 1 because a majority had signed cards, and agreed to a contract with no wage increases.

In September 1996, Isidro Camarillo, a Somers janitor supporting Local 1877, was attacked at night in one of Hewlett-Packard's buildings by Crisanto Martinez, a Local 1 steward. On October 27 Luis Camarillo, another 1877 supporter, was beaten in an H-P building as well. Martinez is still employed by Somers.

Eventually, the National Labor Relations Board found that Local 1 was a company union, and invalidated its agreement with Somers. Nevertheless, the company's war with Local 1877 continued.

According to Raul Lara, a Somers janitor, "the company still threatens to fire workers for participating in union activities. Many support the union but are afraid to show their face," he said.

Justice for Janitors built a community coalition to back up the workers' organizing effort. It mounted a campaign to convince Hewlett-Packard to take responsibility, both for the low wages and conditions of the workers, and for the anti-union tactics used by its contractor.

Marlene Somsak, a public relations spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, says the company is opposed to these kinds of corporate campaigns, which she refers to as "the use of neutral parties as battlegrounds."

As this struggle unfolded in Sacramento and Cupertino, Republican politicians in Washington DC began an effort to outlaw the kinds of corporate campaign tactics used by the janitors. In 1996, Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra accused Department of Labor representative Richard Sawyer of intervening with Hewlett Packard on behalf of the union, and got then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich to fire him. Hoekstra's government oversight committee later held hearings on the Somers case, using it as an example of the need to restrict union tactics.

As he greeted the marchers at a rally in Oakland last Friday, Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary of the California Labor Federation, pointed out that these Republican actions have given the labor movement a big stake in winning the fight at Somers. "This isn't just a fight in one company," he said. "The effort to deny these janitors the right to their union is part of a larger rightwing strategy. Companies are using the political process to do away with unions generally and make it impossible for workers to organize."

Meanwhile, Sacramento area politicians, originally hostile to the workers' efforts, have begun to look for ways to end the conflict. Last summer, Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna and city authorities prohibited janitors' marches through the streets. Pulaski and other labor leaders were arrested en masse as they paraded on the K Street mall in the union's support.

Serna eventually felt so much political heat that he reluctantly offered to mediate a settlement between Somers and the union. In January, when Somers rebuffed his offer, he made public a letter condemning the company, saying it "never really came to the table with a viable proposal, thus making clear that the company wasn't ready to negotiate in good faith."

Serna highlighted the consequences of intense competition between non-union janitorial contractors. "Janitors are still stuck in poverty," he said. "It is therefore to the benefit of the community when workers are organized into unions and earn living wages and health benefits."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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