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Custodians Threaten to Walk Off Jobs

October 25, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Labor organizers say janitors who clean six of Glendale's new office towers are threatening to walk off the job early next month in protest of low wages and a lack of benefits. Organizers charge that the plight of custodians is in sharp contrast to the salaries and benefits earned by office workers and managers in the buildings they service.

To demonstrate their position and muster courage among themselves, about 50 custodians and their supporters staged a noon rally last Friday on a patio at the Glendale Superior Court building at Broadway and Glendale Avenue.

Wearing red Justice for Janitors T-shirts, protesters marched in circles under a courthouse olive tree, sang songs and carried signs as passersby gawked and drivers honked.

Bill Ragen, project director of Justice for Janitors, a committee of Service Employees International Union, said workers are protesting what they believe is unfair treatment by Bradford Building Services of Los Angeles, the largest non-union maintenance firm in Southern California.

Ragen said Bradford employees are paid the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and receive no benefits, while union workers with other companies earn an average of $6 an hour and have family health insurance, sick leave and vacations.

Larry Smith, president of Bradford, denied the union's allegations. "Our wage rates run typically from $4.85 to $10 an hour," he said, and workers usually receive some benefits, depending on individual contracts with building managers.

Smith said his company and union organizers have been battling in the courts and before the National Labor Relations Board for 10 years. He declined to discuss the actions in detail because of pending litigation. However, Smith said there are 2,600 other cleaning contractors in Southern California, "most of which are non-union."

Ragen said union organizers have targeted the Glendale area during the last two months because of the community's growing prominence as a labor and service-based economy. "The janitors are organizing to make sure that the shift does not mean a two-tier economy which forces the new service-sector workers to live in poverty," Ragen said.

Jono Shaffer, a labor organizer who accompanied demonstrators with his guitar, said all of the Bradford employees in Glendale have signed union authorization cards and have voted to support a strike, if necessary.

However, Shaffer said the union does not formally represent workers because an election has not been held. "An election is really a bureaucratic process which we don't use anymore," Shaffer said. "We see no need to get bogged down in the lengthy, drawn-out process." Instead, he asked that the company "listen to what their workers are saying."

Ragen said demands by custodians are often ignored by managers until they strike. He said about 45 employees at Glendale buildings are ready to walk out, probably early next month.

The buildings targeted are at 330, 505, 550, 611 and 801 N. Brand Blvd. and at 700 N. Central Ave.--all cleaned under contractual agreements with Bradford.

About 140 workers participated in a protest march in Glendale in September outside two high-rise office buildings serviced by Bradford. During that protest, Glendale police watched but did not interfere.

On June 15, a larger Justice for Janitors march against another firm in Century City led to a violent confrontation with baton-wielding Los Angeles police, resulting in 40 arrests and 16 injuries.

During Friday's demonstration in Glendale, union organizers instructed participants in "civil disobedience." Some workers linked arms to simulate blocking an entrance to a building, while others, with paper stars pinned to their shirts, played the roles of arresting officers.

One worker who was arrested in the Century City demonstration urged her co-workers not to be afraid. "I was afraid when I did it, but not now," she said in Spanish.

Another custodian, employed in Glendale, said: "I hope that we are not forced to go out on strike. But if we must, we will, because our cause is a just one."

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