Talking Dirty

Denver's janitors were being swept aside. Now they're winning respect.

Angela never expected that her life would have a happy ending.

She grew up in grinding poverty on a cattle ranch in central Mexico, where her father was a ranch hand. There was little, if any, work available for Angela or her siblings. Desperate to make a better life for herself, she left Michoacán at age fifteen for the bright lights of Mexico City. Instead of glamour and opportunity, though, she found only more poverty, barely subsisting on her plastic-factory earnings.

At age nineteen, she gave birth to a baby girl. When her relationship with the child's father ended, Angela decided the only way to give her daughter, Analaura, a decent life was to risk crossing into the United States to find work.

Mark Andresen
Angela escaped a life of poverty  in Mexico to become 
a Denver janitor, but she wants more --  like health 
insurance for  her children.
Anthony Camera
Angela escaped a life of poverty in Mexico to become a Denver janitor, but she wants more -- like health insurance for her children.

They traveled to Tijuana, where Angela, clutching the six-year-old to her, climbed into a sewage tunnel and waded through the muck across the border into San Diego. Analaura was in tears when they emerged on the other side, where they were met by family members who were already living in California. They cleaned themselves off at a nearby McDonald's. Their new life in the United States had begun.

Angela spent several years in California working different jobs; she eventually married and had two more children. When a friend who was working construction in Denver told her the city was a good place to find jobs, she and her husband, Lucas, decided to come north. Almost immediately after their arrival eight years ago, Angela was hired as a janitor in the building where she still works.

She cared for their three children during the day while Lucas worked, then went off at night to scrub toilets, mop floors and vacuum carpets in downtown high-rises -- places she could only have dreamed about on the ranch in Michoacán. She made little more than minimum wage while cleaning up after lawyers who billed their clients $200 per hour.

Angela's life story might have stopped here, the familiar saga of a poor immigrant. Backbreaking work for little money. Powerlessness. Anonymity. But she was destined for more, and she found it, oddly enough, on the very same floors she swept.

Angela, the frightened girl who left the finca in desperation, was suddenly talking back to her bosses, fearlessly leading dozens of fellow janitors in protest marches, linking arms with ministers and nuns, proudly carrying placards with pictures of her children, the word "uninsured" splashed across their faces like an accusation.

Once one of life's victims, Angela had become something different. In a country where she couldn't speak the language and had few rights, she was now proud, defiant, brave. It was all about justice.

Marching with her fellow janitors in June, she raised her fist in the air and shouted, "Sí, se puede!" Yes, we can!

A few days later, Angela's militance was rewarded. Her union, which had been bracing for a bitter strike, won almost every concession it had asked of local cleaning contractors: health insurance, more money, even sick days and vacation time.

Angela had become part of a national phenomenon. Immigrant janitors across the country have organized, and now, even in a down economy, they're winning contracts that are improving their lives. Janitors in Boston won new health benefits following a bitter month-long standoff last fall. And three years ago, a successful strike in Los Angeles showed building owners and cleaning companies that janitors had the power to win over public opinion.

And it all started in Denver.

The 1980s were a bad time for almost everyone in Colorado. After the oil industry cratered, thousands of homes went into foreclosure, people fled the state to look for work, and businesses moved out, leaving downtown high-rises half empty.

As the office buildings emptied, many of the janitors working in them were laid off. Building owners looking to further cut costs turned the cleaning over to non-union contractors who could pay minimum wage with no benefits. They knew they'd still have full crews because so many people were desperate for work.

It was the same all over the country. Even in cities such as Los Angeles, which at one time had well-established janitors' unions, most of the cleaning in major buildings was turned over to non-union contractors, who preferred to hire immigrants from Latin America. Unlike the old unionized workforce that was largely native-born, many of the new janitors were easy to exploit because they were here illegally and spoke little English.

This was not exactly a promising environment for an organizing drive, but in 1985 the Service Employees International Union decided to try anyway; Denver was to be the test site for its new organizing strategy, thanks to a well-established local, a sympathetic Latino mayor and supportive state labor leaders. Soon a dynamic staff of organizers was showing up in the Mile High City.

"When we started the campaign, the standard wage was $3.35 an hour with no benefits," recalls Mike Wilzoch, who played a key role in the Denver experiment and now heads up the SEIU's San Diego local.

A self-described "semi-hippie" who had worked with the United Farm Workers in California, Wilzoch understood the value of street theater and civil disobedience. He decided to try some of those methods here, and soon found himself under arrest. He was in a bank lobby, dressed up as Santa Claus; he'd been trying to highlight the bank's Scrooge-like behavior toward its janitors. A news photograph of Santa in handcuffs went out around the world, even appearing on the front page of a small-town Canadian newspaper. Coincidentally, it was the same town the building's owner was vacationing in.

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