Workers' Rights Board takes hard look at janitorial contractors

A panel of local leaders met Nov. 8 to hear testimony from janitors who say that without a union, they are underpaid and work without adequate protection from hazardous chemicals. In some cases, they are not paid for all the hours they work.

The hearing was the latest campaign undertaken by the Workers' Rights Board, a project of Portland Jobs With Justice. The board is composed of about 50 community leaders - clergy, elected officials, labor leaders, business people, activists and academics - who are willing to use their individual and collective moral authority to investigate, publicize and resolve situations where workers' rights allegedly have been violated. Over a dozen other cities have such boards.

This time, the board panel included Portland City Commissioner Eric Sten, former state representative JoAnn Bowman, Father Robert Krueger of St. Andrews Catholic Church, David Leslie of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Lewis & Clark professor Elliott Young, and author Jose Padin.

As about 70 supporters looked on, the panel heard from Maria Valdera, formerly a school teacher in Mexico, who now works as a janitor for Millenium Building Services. Valdera testified that she's expected to use strong chemicals, which burn her hands, and that she's not always given gloves.

She said Millenium doesn't pay her for all the hours she works, a charge echoed by several other workers who testified. And she said she has never received a pay increase in her six years there. In contrast, Ariselis Rivera, a three-year employee at unionized American Building Maintenance, described a personal odyssey that began with leaving her native Honduras and culminated in a union janitor job that enabled her to buy a house after years of saving.

Ken Bartell, owner of the signatory janitorial firm ServiceMaster, testified that he can pay decently and make a living, but that he faces constant competition from competitors who can undercut his price by paying workers less money.

"Most building owners and managers are looking for the cheapest way to do things," Bartell said. "It costs us only a few cents per square foot to provide benefits. When tenants are paying $20 or more per square foot, that doesn't seem like a lot of money."

In Portland, union janitors earn $9.50 to $10.50 an hour; non-union janitors make $7 to $8 an hour. Union janitors have fully-paid health benefits with no deductible, plus a modest pension, seniority rights and a procedure for arbitrating grievances. Non-union janitors have none of these.

Non-union janitorial and building management companies were invited to testify at the hearing, but declined to respond.

Thirteen Portland area janitorial contractors are unionized, mostly companies that clean downtown Portland buildings.

Alice Dale, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, said that her members clean 65 percent of the office space in the downtown core, but only 12 percent in the suburbs.

"The workers that are organized cannot continue to be if they lose contracts to non-union companies that pay lower wages," Dale said. "What we'd like to do is take wages and benefits out of competition. Let them compete on the basis of quality or on administrative costs."

The hearing is part of a nationwide campaign to win "Justice for Janitors" by helping get union contracts for janitors cleaning corporate office buildings. Such campaigns have won substantial improvements in several cities, and SEIU is trying to duplicate those results around the country.

Dale said community support has been key to winning in every case. "When people of stature in the community speak out about this, that makes a difference; the problem gets solved. That's why we were successful in Los Angeles and in Boston."

The Portland Workers Rights Board panel is considering further steps to take. Panelists agreed that alleged violations of wage and hour laws should be investigated, and Sten pledged to use his office to ask the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to do so. Sten and others are also reportedly considering a campaign to persuade building owners to "do the right thing" and switch to responsible contractors.

"This story is so compelling," Sten said. "The costs may be modest enough that we may be able to persuade some people."

December 6, 2002 issue

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