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COLUMN ONE : For Militant Union, It's a War : Protesters scream and bang drums. Recruiters sneak into buildings. Decried by critics, the tactics of the Justice for Janitors campaign have been wildly successful.

August 19, 1993|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

"Before, one person cleaned one floor. Now it's a floor and a half--45,000 square feet," says janitor Adolfo Tipaz, 28, as he piles rags onto his cleaning cart. "We don't get any breaks, even for lunch," he says, a practice being challenged as illegal in a pending union lawsuit against Advance. The company said its practices are legal and that, like many businesses, it pays the minimum wage.

Standing amid ammonia bottles and boxes of bathroom tissue, Tipaz adds: "The company will never tell you your rights. This union is opening my eyes."

Janitors, the union contends, often are treated like garbage by cleaning companies. Most building owners contract with janitorial companies rather than employ in-house crews--a trend that has allowed owners to slash their cleaning bills. Janitors are expected to scour the same square footage as the average-sized house every 20 minutes, a pace that often precludes breaks.

Union lawsuits allege that janitors are routinely asked to work up to four weeks for free as a "training period." Other janitors contend that they have had to work 12 hours a day to earn eight hours pay, and they say they often are not provided gloves or face masks to protect against constant exposure to chemicals--which, because the bottles are sometimes unlabeled, the janitors must sniff to identify.

"We ask for gloves. We don't get them," said one worker at the Mattel factory, who blamed daily use of cleaning chemicals for open, festering sores on his hands.

Mattel's Durik said no worker has filed such a complaint, adding: "We wouldn't condone anyone having their health or safety jeopardized."

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Workers such as Tipaz are trained to help implement SEIU's strategy: to hit cleaning companies and building owners with an array of tactics so onerous that surrender becomes preferable to remaining non-union.

The union plies janitors with a three-page "Cal-OSHA questionnaire," asking them to point out a host of violations, such as frayed vacuum cleaner electrical cords, lack of safety training, unlabeled chemicals or those labeled only in English, and a list of 27 possible ailments their job may have caused.

Organizers grill workers for evidence of sexual harassment or violations of wage and hour laws, and they send minority workers to apply for jobs to test for hiring discrimination. Cleaning crews have shown up en masse at zoning meetings when a building owner they are pressing to go union wants approval to erect a new building.

"This is a war," said Rocio Saenz, a Justice for Janitors organizer in Los Angeles.

But the "Maalox moment" comes, usually on a daily basis, when hordes of janitors show up at targeted buildings bent on disruption and causing a public relations nightmare for building owners. There are sit-ins and marches in which--unlike other unions whose rank and file politely walk circles with signs outside--janitors scream, chant and bang drums as they snake through a building's offices, risking trespass charges, and sometimes even piling trash in marbled building lobbies.

"Being polite doesn't get you anywhere," said Stephen Lerner, national director of Building Service Division Organizing for SEIU. He said the union creates excitement by appealing to a sense of dignity among workers, who speak of making $30 a night cleaning offices where, by day, lawyers make $300 an hour.

Workers' resolve was evident in 1990 when 400 janitors staged a march from Beverly Hills to Century City against ISS International Service Systems Inc.

"You will not pass," janitor Isabel del Real heard a Los Angeles police officer shout. She and other marchers pressed on. She said officers lashed out with batons and whacked pregnant women, older janitors, even children; two of her co-workers had blood flowing down their faces from head wounds. The aggressive action paid off and proved a crucial turning point for the union. Two weeks later, it had a contract with ISS.

"The strategy is attack, attack, attack," del Real said of this and other mass arrests.

Justice for Janitors skips the slow process of seeking government-supervised union elections, saying the rules have been skewed in recent years to companies' advantage. Instead, the organization hounds a cleaning firm until it recognizes the union. The technique, its leaders say, puts them in a better position to hammer out strong contracts. Strikes are used only as hit-and-run maneuvers to disrupt, putting members at less risk of being fired.

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"They pick a target and beat them into submission by whatever methods are necessary," said Allen G. Siegel, legal counsel to Washington, D.C., cleaning concerns that are banding together to fight tactics he called vicious. Union members chained themselves to the front doors of his office buildings, and others burst into the law firm's conference rooms, spooking clients with their shouts.

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