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.
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.
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 
July.
Anthony Camera
Janitors narrowly avoided having to use picket signs in July.

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 fincain 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.

"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.

"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."

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.)

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.

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.

"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.

"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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