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Janitors Battle Their Status as 'Invisible Workers' : Labor: Demonstrators step up their campaign against a Beverly Hills-based cleaning contractor that pays many employees minimum wage.


WESTSIDE — They're rarely seen, even more rarely heard. They come in after everybody else has quit for the day, and spend the night emptying wastebaskets, vacuuming carpets, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms. Then they disappear before even the earliest early-bird white collar worker gets into the office in the morning.

They're janitors, and most people who work in offices probably never give them a first thought, much less a second one.

But from Century City to downtown Los Angeles and now in the South Bay, union organizers and janitors in the "Justice for Janitors" campaign have been giving faces and voices--sometimes angry faces and voices--to society's most anonymous and often lowest-paid workers. By waving signs, banging drums, even blocking traffic on busy Sepulveda Boulevard, the militant janitors are trying to raise their pay, their benefits and public awareness of their plight.

"Janitors are invisible workers," says Jono Shaffer, an organizer for Local 399 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 6,000 janitors in L.A. County and which is conducting the Justice for Janitors campaign. "Most people never think about them. They never think about the fact that every night, every square foot of carpet in those luxury office buildings has a vacuum cleaner pushed over it. We're trying to change that, to get people to pay attention to what's going on."

Noon-hour motorists on Sepulveda at Grand Avenue in El Segundo certainly paid attention July 16, when about 200 janitors and organizers staged a noisy demonstration at the intersection to protest low wages for janitors at the nearby Mattel Toys building and other buildings in the area. The protest ended with the arrest of 10 people, most of them for intentionally blocking traffic on Sepulveda with their bodies.

The target of the demonstration was a Beverly Hills-based company called Advance Building Maintenance, which provides non-union janitorial services on a contract basis for Mattel as well as the nearby LAX Business Center and Hughes Aircraft Co. Protest organizers say Advance pays the 450 or so janitors on its payroll "slave wages"--$4.25 an hour in most cases, the minimum legal wage--and provides no benefits.

The protests continued last week, with anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen demonstrators gathering near the intersection nearly every day. The demonstrations last week, though noisy, have not resulted in any arrests.

Arrests and noisy demonstrations are nothing new to the Justice for Janitors campaign.

Three years ago, 40 people were arrested and 16 injured during a clash between police and demonstrating janitors in Century City. Last fall about 500 Justice for Janitors demonstrators staged a loud rally at Toyota Motors headquarters in Torrance, which also has a janitorial services contract with Advance Building Maintenance.

Other Justice for Janitors demonstrations have been staged in Beverly Hills, the mid-Wilshire area and downtown Los Angeles.

One of the demonstrators standing at Sepulveda and Grand this week was Sara Herrera, 33, an immigrant from Guatemala who said she worked for Advance Maintenance for three years at the LAX Business Center. She's been demonstrating since last month, when she and two dozen other Advance employees walked off the job to protest what they call "unfair labor practices" by the company. Herrera, who has three children, said she earned only $309 every two weeks, after taxes, when she was working for Advance.

Union organizers say a win would consist of an increase in a janitor's wages to about $6 an hour or more, plus health benefits.

But Advance Building Maintenance chief executive George Vallen said many of his employees already make more than $4.25 an hour--up to $16 an hour for supervisors, he said. But, he added, business pressures make it impossible to pay all his employees higher wages or provide benefits.

"I'm in a real competitive market," said Vallen, who added that a lot of people are willing to work for $4.25 an hour.

Vallen bitterly criticized the Justice for Janitors campaign for what he says are unfair practices against his company, including what he called the efforts to "intimidate" the companies with whom he has contracts.

Shaffer and other organizers of the janitors' campaign, meanwhile, make no apology for their tactics, saying that traditional unionizing efforts are ineffective in the janitorial industry.

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