Talking Dirty

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

But after the janitors won a new contract, Anthony discovered her involvement had been more vital than she realized.

"One of the building managers said, 'We're tired of getting calls from all these nuns,'" she says.

Recognizing the importance of the relationship between unions and the church, the AFL-CIO started a special program called Seminary Summer to help clergy in training understand labor issues. This past spring, the SEIU sent Arnie Raj, a student at the Iliff School of Theology who is studying to be a United Methodist minister, to the program. When he came back to Denver in June, Raj threw himself into the Justice for Janitors campaign.

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.

"The religious community has a different effect on the struggle," he says. "We're saying it's a moral thing, not just an economic question. The janitors aren't asking for anything outrageous. I've gone to more protests and rallies in the past year than I have in my whole life. We'd honk our horns and drive around the building. We'd bring in a hundred janitors with megaphones. It was in-your-face. They knew we weren't going away."

Raj also made visits to property managers with the other clergy. He vividly recalls one woman being particularly troubled to have a priest in her office. "As she was kicking us out, she told the priest, ''I'm a good Catholic, Father.' She didn't want him to think badly of her."

The culmination of their efforts was a June 26 downtown rally of 1,000 janitors and their supporters at 17th and Welton streets. The janitors were furious over the cleaning companies' contract proposal that called for 7 percent wage cuts for new hires and no expansion of health insurance. A strike seemed inevitable.

On July 1, just as Denver's janitors were ready to hit the streets, negotiators for the contractors called union officials into a marathon negotiating session. By 3 a.m., a settlement was reached that gave the janitors much of what they were seeking.

The contract raises the janitors' hourly wages by $1.30 over the next five years and, most important, expands the number of full-time positions to 550, giving many families health coverage for the first time.

"We were able to achieve every objective we had," Alzaga boasts. "For the first time in the history of this union, we have family health insurance. We were able to win $16 million for health care and salaries." This, despite an office-vacancy rate of 25 percent in metro Denver.

Before the contract agreement, Mike Severns, the cleaning companies' lead negotiator, had told the media the companies couldn't afford to pay for better benefits because of the vacancies, but he now speaks favorably of the contract.

"We believe it was a fair settlement both parties can live with," he says.

As for the janitors' in-your-face tactics, Severns claims they didn't affect the negotiations. "They believe for some reason [the tactics] are effective," he says. "All they're effective at is attracting the news media. When we're in deliberations, we're not affected by those things."

The agreement calls for the new benefits to be phased in over five years, and the cleaning companies are betting that Denver's office market will improve and their business will pick up over the next few years.

"Our revenues are down, and anything like labor costs rising is a concern," says Sean Schraeder, regional manager for ABM Janitorial Services, which, with 600 employees, is one of the largest cleaning companies in Denver. "When you talk about increasing janitorial costs, you have to raise rents. The last thing people want to do is raise rents in this economy."

However, Schraeder does see advantages in the new contract.

"There was a time when we turned over a new crew every month; we had 400 percent turnover rates," Schraeder says. "If the janitors have benefits, they stay around longer. Cleaners who are in a building longer are better cleaners. When you have a full-time worker with family health care, they'll stay in that building."

The new contract has also been empowering for Daniel, who now makes $9.10 an hour and has health insurance.

"Having a union has been an improvement because I don't have to look for other jobs," he says. "Before, I had two part-time jobs that weren't very good. Now I'm making much more money and can send money back to Guatemala."

He is also proud that, as a union steward, he can help his fellow janitors. "One of my co-workers didn't come to work because of a medical emergency," he says. "They wanted to terminate him then and there, and we were able to show he'd been at the hospital."

And when a supervisor kicked a bucket in anger next to a janitor scrubbing the floor, Daniel was able to speak out.

"I had to reprimand the supervisor," he says. "We felt it was disrespectful and told the supervisor she had to respect the workers and that was inappropriate."

Walking into the SEIU offices near the former Gates Rubber factory on Broadway is more like stepping into an especially lively student union than a stuffy union hall.

The bold colors of Mexican art fill the walls, and a portrait of Che Guevara hangs over a desk. Spanish is heard almost as frequently as English, and pizza seems to arrive regularly as busy staffers work through their lunch hours setting up an immigrants'-rights conference and training sessions for janitors getting involved in local politics. Many of the organizers are just out of college, drawn to work that matches their ideals.

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