Talking Dirty

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

Ackerman offered the various DTC cleaning contractors the same terms the SEIU had offered downtown: no contract until their competitors recognized the janitors, too.

It took three years, but all of the commotion paid off. One by one, the cleaning contractors settled with the SEIU. By the time the union's master contract -- which covers 2,200 janitors in metro Denver -- was set to expire this summer, the SEIU represented 95 percent of the janitors downtown and 80 percent of those in the Tech Center.

However, most of their members were still part-time, had no health benefits and an average wage of $8 an hour. The handful of full-time employees did receive health insurance, but it did not cover their families. (About 70 percent of the janitors are women, and most of them have children.)

Mitch Ackerman, president of SEIU Local 105, has 
organized nearly all downtown and DTC janitors.
Anthony Camera
Mitch Ackerman, president of SEIU Local 105, has organized nearly all downtown and DTC janitors.
Janitors narrowly avoided having to use picket signs in 
Anthony Camera
Janitors narrowly avoided having to use picket signs in July.

Something had to change. By the end of June, Angela and the other janitors were prepared to strike.

"Going on strike is a serious matter; it's scary," says Daniel, a janitor who works in a forty-story building downtown. (Many of the janitors interviewed for this story are undocumented and asked that their last names not be used.)

Daniel speaks in a deep, somber voice befitting a man who knows firsthand the risks of organizing. In his native Guatemala, he and his brothers worked packing bananas for a Dole subcontractor.

"My company in Guatemala was non-union," he says. "If you try to organize a union there, they kill you. I tried to organize a union with my brothers, and the company thugs threatened our lives. We had to leave Guatemala because our lives were threatened."

In Denver, Daniel carries out all of the trash from his building, and he has the scars on his hands to prove it. "It's a very tough job; it's hard on my back. It's a lot of work, but you get used to it."

He also had the tough job of organizing the janitors in his building, preparing them to walk out on July 1 if the SEIU and the cleaning contractors didn't reach an agreement.

"One of things I saw was workers who were fierce and organized but also had fear, especially with a bad economy. I helped those with the fear to step up."

The main issue in contract negotiations was health care. Many of the janitors were frustrated and angry that their children and spouses had no health insurance.

"I usually have to forsake some things for myself and my family to take my children to the doctor," says Angela. "Every time I go to the doctor, he charges me $100. We have to sacrifice other things to go to the doctor. I don't pay my bills on time. I'd rather make sure my child is healthy. Sometimes we just eat beans and rice, the most cheap things we can get. We won't have meat."

Union officials knew they couldn't improve their members' lives until they had good insurance. "Our focus now is on health care," says Valery Alzaga, who runs the Denver Justice for Janitors campaign. "That's what will keep an immigrant janitor from going bankrupt if they get sick. We understand health care is vital for their lives. They have to choose between going to the doctor or paying the rent."

At Justice for Janitors rallies, parents marched with pictures of their children with "Uninsured" scrawled under their innocent faces.

"We thought about the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who carry pictures of their children and how powerful it is," Alzaga says. "Also, we wanted the children to be involved. We wanted them to think, 'My mom is a janitor, and she also really kicked some ass.'"

Ackerman noticed that the health-insurance issue seemed to resonate with people in the community and office tenants more than it had in the past. More than 41 million Americans don't have health insurance, and many companies are cutting back on health benefits for their employees.

"I think health care has become a huge issue for everyone," he says. "How can an $8-an-hour worker possibly afford health insurance?"

Playing on that support, the Justice for Janitors campaign used the moral aspect of their fight to build coalitions with the religious community. In the weeks leading up to the janitors' strike deadline, ministers, priests and nuns played starring roles in rallies and marches, drawing support from many people who are normally suspicious of labor unions.

"It's a social justice issue," says Sister Antonia Anthony of the Marycrest Franciscan Sisters. "Many of the janitors are immigrants, and they're invisible. We wanted to show our support."

She joined a group of four clergy who volunteered to speak with building managers on behalf of the janitors. The union realized that one of the best ways to pressure cleaning contractors was to go directly to the people who hire them. And since most of the large office buildings in Denver are owned by huge national real estate investment companies like Equity Office Properties and Crescent Real Estate, the local managers often found themselves becoming targets of activists -- including some they might see in church on Sunday. Even so, the clergy typically received a cold reception in their offices.

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