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Talking Dirty

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

"Half our staff graduated with me at CU," says Scott Silber, a 27-year-old organizer who was active in student political groups on the Boulder campus. "One thing we've noticed is that workers have a lot more power when students are organizing with them."

Silber targets cleaning companies that refuse to recognize the union, and for weeks he's been putting up leaflets in the downtown building that houses the powerhouse law firm of Davis, Graham & Stubbs. He's been informing the lawyers working there that their non-union cleaning company harassed a pregnant SEIU supporter by giving her heavy workloads that may have caused her to miscarry.

Recently, Denver developer Pat Broe got rid of a union janitorial company at his 50 South Steele Street office building and brought in a non-union contractor. According to Ackerman, that company subcontracts with each of the janitors so they aren't eligible for workers' compensation or unemployment benefits.

"You have a multi-millionaire absentee landlord who thinks $8 an hour is too much to pay," Ackerman says.

A spokesman for Broe says the company is simply looking for the best deal it can get. "We allow all vendors, both union and non-union, to compete for business at our properties," says Tom Henley. "We're at our properties every day, and we're not an absentee landlord."

Despite the dispute with Broe, the Justice for Janitors' hallmark strategizing has been effective in the real estate world. Several large pension funds are major investors in the real estate companies that own many downtown buildings. For example, one of Denver's largest buildings, the Wells Fargo "cash register" tower, is owned by CALPERS, the huge retirement fund for California public employees. Since the SEIU represents thousands of public employees in California, CALPERS made sure its cleaning contractor knew it supported the janitors' demand for health insurance. CALPERS also placed calls to the real estate funds it had invested in, telling the managers it supported the janitors' struggle in Denver.

Even Chicago-based Equity, the largest office-building owner in the country, has taken notice. Equity owns sixteen office buildings in metro Denver, with 4.7 million square feet of space.

"We try to encourage everyone to work out their problems at the bargaining table," says Equity spokeswoman Denise Spencer. "We always encourage a quick settlement. We want a fast and fair settlement whenever there's a situation like that."

The janitors have also increased their involvement in local politics. Forty janitors walked precincts in the recent Denver municipal election, and union-backed candidates won eleven of thirteen city council seats.

And while all of this activity has improved janitors' lives, for the union there is much more at stake. During the past two decades, the percentage of workers in labor unions has declined, and unions now represent just 13 percent of the workforce. Nationwide unions are looking for new ways to organize, and the SEIU's model has been spectacularly successful. Since 1996, 535,000 new members have come on board, making it the largest union in the country with 1.5 million members, including more than 250,000 janitors.

Part of that accomplishment comes from recruiting immigrants despite conventional union philosophy that such workers are a threat to the wages of the native-born. But those attitudes are beginning to change as Latinos make up a larger percentage of the workforce. The building trades in particular -- traditionally the most conservative labor unions -- have found the need to organize Spanish-speaking workers to survive.

"The fact that SEIU started organizing a whole section of people that labor wouldn't touch a few decades ago is a really impressive thing," says Albert Melchor, an organizer with the Painters and Drywall Finishers, Local 79. "Now unions are trying to hire bilingual organizers. Justice for Janitors has been an inspiration to us."

Melchor, who speaks Spanish, is working with the SEIU to set up English classes for his members. At his behest, the Painters also started translating discussions at meetings so that immigrant members could follow along.

But the real mark of Justice for Janitors' success is the way it has transformed lives.

"It's made it possible for me to learn and inform my fellow workers, to get involved directly in the struggle," Angela says. "It's important work. You learn all about the biggest companies and what's going on economically, as well as what's happening at the state level and problems Hispanics face. It's an avenue for us to defend our rights."

Angela's emergence as a leader -- one of five janitors serving on Local 105's executive board -- has been as daring and unexpected as her under-the-border run through the sewage tunnel fifteen years ago.

In the anxious weeks leading up to the strike deadline, she worried about her children and how they would do while she was busy attending rallies and meetings. She talked with Marcos, twelve, and Hugo, eight, trying to explain to them why she was willing to go on strike.

"One of the things that was difficult for me was that my children didn't see me much," she says. "One day before the strike, I sat down with my children and talked to them. I told them they might see me less -- or more if they joined me on the picket line. I explained to them why we were going to go on strike and that I had to fight for benefits for their health. They told me, 'We support you, Mom, and we'll see you on TV.'"

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