Last August, David Rocha, a 38-year-old immigrant from Mexico, went to work at a building in the Denver Technological Center, just like thousands of other people. But it was a day he'll never forget.
A janitor who worked for just over $5 an hour for Maintenance Unlimited Inc., the largest janitorial contractor in the south suburbs, Rocha had become known as a supporter of a union organizing drive at the company. That didn't go over well with his supervisor, and he says his boss took him and several other employees aside that day and told them that if they kept up their union activity, "they were going to be taken to the sky."
Rocha believes his life was being threatened, and he was especially frightened because he remembered hearing stories of workers being murdered by death squads in Mexico.
"I took it as a death threat," says the father of four. "They told me, 'You should take it the way you want to take it.' The supervisor told me he could destroy me whenever he wanted to."
Later that month Rocha was fired.
His story is now part of a lengthy legal docket in federal court, and it highlights one of the most bitter labor disputes in Colorado. For more than a year, Local 105 of the Service Employees International Union has been trying to unionize the employees of Maintenance Unlimited, who work mainly in the Denver Tech Center and adjacent office parks. Many of the workers at that company say their employer has engaged in a systematic campaign of harassment to deprive them of their right to form a union.
After eight days of hearings earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board found that the company had violated federal labor law 69 different times by firing union supporters like Rocha, trying to infiltrate union meetings and harassing employees involved in organizing. The NLRB staff recently asked federal judge Lewis Babcock to issue an injunction against the company, forbidding it from harassing union members.
The working environment detailed in the complaints compiled by the NLRB sounds more like that of a banana plantation than an upscale office park. One company supervisor at the Orchard Falls building allegedly told an employee that "he was not going to fire her immediately but that it was like she was dead," while another humiliated the employees by forcing them to clean toilets without brushes, using just their bare hands.
The NLRB found a consistent pattern of harassment of union supporters by supervisors, including having employees infiltrate a union meeting to see who attended; threatening employees who had agreed to testify at the NLRB hearing; telling an employee he was a "fucking problem" who was "going to get to know real work"; and firing three employees--Rocha among them--for supporting the union.
The NLRB's findings will now be heard by an administrative law judge, who will have the final say whether Maintenance Unlimited violated federal labor law.
Union officials have singled out the company as one of the worst employers in the metro area, and they say the firm is exploiting a vulnerable workforce that is made up primarily of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"These are five-hour-a-night jobs," says SEIU organizer Mitch Ackerman. "They have to clean 18,000 square feet, the equivalent of a dozen private homes, and they're taking home $20 if they're lucky."
Kevin Grierson, the president of Maintenance Unlimited, says that the charges against his company are untrue and that he has been unfairly targeted by an aggressive union organizing drive.
"I don't believe any of my supervisors have threatened violence," says Grierson. "We've trained our people carefully how not to break the law."
The SEIU has been asking janitorial contractors at the Tech Center to sign a pledge that they will remain neutral during union organizing drives and will recognize the union if a majority of employees sign union cards. While several of the contractors in the area signed this agreement, Grierson refused.
"They're trying to force the companies to roll over and recognize the union without a vote," says Grierson. "We believe the janitors should have the right to say whether or not they want a union."
Ackerman responds that a fair vote is unlikely at Maintenance Unlimited. "The atmosphere he's created makes it impossible to have a free and fair election," says Ackerman. "If one side can have its supporters fired and intimidated, there's no way you can have a fair election."
According to Grierson, most of the janitors who work for him make $5.25 to $6 an hour. They have no health insurance, he says, but they receive paid holidays and free English classes. Almost all of the employees are from Mexico or Central America.
The dispute between Maintenance Unlimited and the SEIU has come to have far more meaning than a typical labor conflict. Because most of the janitors in downtown Denver are already represented by the SEIU, the union has made organizing the 1,500 janitors working in the Tech Center area a high priority. The effort has caught the eye of national AFL-CIO leaders, who believe that organizing low-paid service-industry workers--many of them immigrants--is the key to turning around the labor movement after years of declining membership. Last month, AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson appeared at a Denver rally in support of the Maintenance Unlimited workers.
"We're ready to be more confrontational," says Leslie Moody, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation. "The message we're trying to get out is that if you can't do business without oppressing the people who work for you, you have no right to do business in this town."
Moody is typical of a new generation of union activists. The 31-year-old got her start as a rabble-rouser when she was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where she organized protests against timber cutting. She came to believe that the lumber companies were trying to pit workers against environmentalists, and that prompted her interest in the labor movement. After moving to Denver six years ago, she became involved with the Jobs With Justice campaign, which builds coalitions between unions and community groups and has played a big role in trying to organize janitors.
Now Moody is an advocate of a new strategy known as a "corporate campaign." She and other labor advocates contend that federal labor laws are slanted against unions, allowing employers to tie up organizing efforts for years with endless appeals in the courts, even after employees have voted to form a union. As an alternate strategy, they advocate pressuring companies like Maintenance Unlimited by taking their case straight to the company's clients.
Many of the buildings in the Tech Center are owned by pension funds, and Moody says the union has been successful in getting several of those owners to drop Maintenance Unlimited as their janitorial contractor. "The corporate campaign is nothing more than exposing labor-law violations," says Moody. "We want to let the owners know their contractor is violating the law."
The SEIU also stages regular demonstrations at the Tech Center, often hanging banners from overpasses on I-25.
Grierson readily concedes that the corporate campaign has cost his company business. "I've gotten constant calls from clients," he says. "They're constantly faxing my clients negative propaganda. They tell me what the union says and fax me their form letters."
While the union has portrayed Grierson as a corporate bully, he sees himself as the victim of a large union and the federal government. He dismisses the NLRB as little more than an agent of labor unions.
"They're totally biased," he says. "Without unions, there's no reason for their existence."
Maintenance Unlimited cleans many of the largest buildings in the Tech Center area and also has a contract with the Cherry Creek school district to clean several schools. Grierson says his company has 40 percent of the market share for janitorial services in the south suburbs.
David Rocha is now working at another janitorial job, and he's still an active supporter of the SEIU. Rocha is a legal immigrant, but he says that the Maintenance Unlimited workers are a mix of legal and illegal immigrants, and that makes it easy for the company to intimidate employees.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"The company says a lot of lies," insists Rocha. "The supervisor used to tell people if they went to another job, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would come and send them back to Mexico. Anybody who raised their voice to defend themselves was immediately fired. I know that if the workers didn't have any fear and had the liberty to hear out their rights, they would go union."
As for Ackerman, he says the SEIU is not about to end its campaign against Maintenance Unlimited.
"Grierson claims the big, bad labor bosses are being unfair to him," says Ackerman. "But we're just informing the public what is going on. Our goal isn't to kick him out of business; it's to get him to act responsibly.