June 10, 2005

Wiping off discrimination

About 1,400 janitors in San Diego County voted to go to strike. They demand better wages and health insurance.

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Hilario Chairez is tired of having to decide between buying a gallon of milk or a little bit of fruit for his three children.

He’s tired of not being able to take their children to the doctor when they get sick because he doesn’t have the money to pay for the consultation nor the medications.

He’s tired that his children can’t afford new clothes at the beginning of the school year.

He’s tired of having to spend all day outside his house, away from his children, because he he has to work double shifts.

Janitorial workers voice their support for a strike.

He’s tired of feeling sad all the time for not being able to offer a better quality of life to his children.

Hilario’s story is not unique. It repeats itself in similar form among the 1,400 janitors that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represents in San Diego County’s suburbs.

It’s precisely that permanent tiredness of having to survive with a salary of $1,000 a month that on last Saturday, June 4, made these workers vote to strike against the janitorial contractors.

The strike, which began the night of Monday, June 6, has been rolling from one area to another, so that workers won’t be as affected financially, said Mike Wilzoch, director of SEIU in San Diego.

Wilzoch said that janitors in the county’s suburbs, such as La Jolla and Del Mar, recive a salary of $7.60 an hour in addition to not having health insurance.

SEIU has been negotiating with the janitorial contractors for more than a month, Wilzoch said.

“In their last offer instead of offering us more benefits and better wages, they asked us to accept cuts, they wanted to freeze all wages. It was a ridicule offer, a lack of respect for workers,” Wilzoch said.

The purpose of the strike was to demand higher salaries similar to those available to janitors in other cities in the state, and also that the workers receive health benefits, he added.

“We’re not asking for vacations in the Bahamas. What we’re asking for are basic things so that our workers could be able to buy milk, shoes and medicines for their children,” he said.

Taking the decision to striking was difficult for many workers, Wilzoch said.

“It’s always difficult to go to strike, but this time it was easier because the conditions in which these workers live are very bad. They live in such an extreme poverty in one of the richest areas of the world, such as La Jolla. It’s always a sacrifice to go to strike, but I’m very proud of working with brave people who are willing to risk what little they have to find more for their families.”

Dick Davis, spokesperson for the eight janitorial contractors, has said that the companies have a plan to respond to the strike.

Davis said that the companies won’t have any problem cleaning the buildings, even if the workers went to strike.

Wilzoch said that the janitorial contractors take advantage of the workers.

“The contractors don’t believe we have power. They have no respect nor do they value the lives and work of these workers. The contractors are very happy that they’re cleaning their floors, but they don’t offer them a good salary or health benefits. These workers are poor, but brave. We’re going to respond.”

Janitors in Downtown San Diego as well as in other cities in the state earn at least $8.45 an hour and they get health insurance, Wilzoch said.

About 95% of the 1,400 janitors SEIU represents in San Diego County’s suburbs are Latino, and the majority of these are Mexicans, Wilzoch said.

One of these workers is Emiliana Cruz, who for not having health insurance, has to treat her son’s asthma symptoms with home remedies.

“It’s a difficult decision going to strike, but it’s worth fighting for a decent salary for me and my family. I’m going to remain in the strike until the end. I don’t want the janitorial contractors to keep on looking at us as if we were ghosts,” said the woman who’s originally from Mexico State.

By the time this issue went to press, SEIU was going to meet with the janitorial contractors to try to reach an agreement.

“We can’t predict the future, but we would like to put an end to the strike as soon as possible,” Wilzoch said.

The union leader said that on Friday, June 10 at noon there was going to be a massive march in La Jolla, to demand better wages and health insurance for janitors.

Wilzoch said that those interested in participating or giving their support to janitors, can call (619) 641-3050.

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