Talking Dirty

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

"From then on, whenever I saw the owner, he'd call me Santa Claus," says Wilzoch, who had several other encounters with the police during his years of organizing in Denver.

"I had many an entertaining run through buildings with security guards chasing after me," he recalls, adding proudly, "I never got caught."

But for all Wilzoch's antics, union leaders were also thinking about how to approach the janitorial contractors, since building-by-building organizing wasn't working. They'd finally come up with a name, Justice for Janitors (even though Wilzoch thought it sounded too much like "Save the Whales"), and now they needed to see results.

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.
Now that many janitors are unionized, Denver Justice 
for Janitors campaign manager Valery Alzaga is 
focusing on health care.
Anthony Camera
Now that many janitors are unionized, Denver Justice for Janitors campaign manager Valery Alzaga is focusing on health care.

"We said if we want different results, we have to take some risks and organize an entire market at a time," says Mitch Ackerman, president of SEIU Local 105. "This is a contracted-out industry. If you organize company by company and they raise their prices, you put them out of business and you lose your only union employees."

Instead, they developed a strategy that proved to be pivotal in the campaign's success. They asked each company to sign an agreement allowing union organizers to talk to their employees and agreeing to recognize the SEIU if a majority of the janitors wanted to join. Then they made a crucial promise to the cleaning companies: the SEIU would not ask for a contract until most of the company's competitors had also agreed to recognize the union.

It was a revolutionary concept for the union, which was dealing with problems that have bedeviled the labor movement for years. Most of the laws governing labor relations are nearly half a century old and have numerous loopholes. For instance, all Americans have the legal right to organize a union in their workplace; however, employers have increasingly sought out legal firms that specialize in helping them prevent such activity. So while workers who are harassed or fired for trying to organize can take their complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, businesses have almost unlimited rights to appeal the board's rulings, and actions are often tied up in legal wrangling for years.

The new tactic was effective in sidestepping this morass, but it didn't come easy, and in the late '80s, downtown Denver was the site of boisterous rallies and protest marches.

Equally crucial was appealing to public sentiment by bringing the janitors out from behind the "dust mop curtain" and letting them tell their stories, as well as cultivating new allies from churches and community organizations.

By the early 1990s, the union had succeeded in organizing most of downtown. However, Justice for Janitors still faced a major problem: Only 30 percent of metro-area office buildings are downtown. Much of the city's office space is in the Denver Tech Center, and the union had little presence there.

"The owners were saying, 'We'll tolerate the union downtown, but we won't have it here,'" Ackerman recalls. "There had to be a culture change out there. These janitors were being paid $4.75 an hour; there was abuse in the buildings that went unchecked. It was horrifying. We were tired of fighting over fifteen-cent raises. We had to change people's lives. In 1996 we said we'd dig into the Tech Center and the suburbs for as long as it takes."

They also knew they'd have to fight the DTC battle if they wanted to continue making progress downtown. Although Justice for Janitors had organized the area, they had won few actual concessions for their members, who were still primarily part-time employees with no health insurance. The large cleaning companies with a presence in both markets were unwilling to give at all at the DTC and would budge only slightly downtown.

Ackerman, now 34, had an intuitive understanding of the dynamics behind an organizing drive, having grown up in New York City, where his grandparents worked in the notorious clothing sweatshops on the Lower East Side. The Czech immigrants were involved in the legendary organizing campaigns launched by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; inspired by their struggle, Ackerman studied Spanish while attending Oberlin College, knowing he'd become a union organizer.

"SEIU's commitment to organizing the least powerful workers -- immigrant, low-wage, part-time -- appealed to me," he says. "That was when unions were first starting to make connections with student activists."

But cracking the Denver Tech Center was a formidable challenge for the young organizer, particularly since the south suburbs are more conservative than downtown and allies were harder to find. So he resorted to the Justice for Janitors campaign's well-known street-theater tactics. He knew that nobody in the Tech Center could ignore hundreds of janitors chained together blocking traffic during rush hour, or picket lines constantly springing up around office towers, or banners hanging (illegally) from bridges over I-25. Nor would they forget the janitors and their supporters being arrested on charges of disturbing the peace as they beat on drums and demanded a contract.

"The strategy is to make everyone pay attention," Ackerman says. "Janitors come in when everybody leaves. Nobody knows they have three jobs and no health insurance and that no one is home to watch their kids. They're invisible."

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