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WESTLAKE : Pictures Worth a Thousand Vacuums

February 20, 1994|JAKE DOHERTY

Night falls on the City of Angels. The suits have gone home but lights still shine from the high-rise office windows. Inside the towers a nocturnal army is on the move. Time for the Big Sweep.

Mixing the intrigue of a detective mystery with a realistic portrayal of the working lives of the city's janitors, a new book offers a glimpse into the world of those who sweep while the city sleeps.

In "The Big Sweep" ("La Gran Limpieza"), a Mexican journalist comes to Los Angeles to search for her missing boyfriend, a janitor and union activist, who disappeared after learning of a union-busting conspiracy. The story unfolds through 250 photographs featuring actors and union members with dialogue in Spanish and English. The photonovela is the fruit of the efforts of four photographers and artists and their interviews with members and organizers of the Justice for Janitors campaign.

"We tried to weave a story that would address the issues that had come out in our interviews in a way that was more fun than a documentary," said Stephen Callis, one of the collaborators and a faculty member at the Otis College of Art and Design.

Callis and artist Leslie Ernst launched the project after participating in the victorious 1990 campaign to win union recognition, better pay and benefits for janitors in Century City. They teamed up with Sandra Ramirez and Ruben Ortiz Torres, also artists and photographers, and had the cooperation of the Service Employees International Union, Local 399, based in Westlake. A $14,600 grant from the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department provided funding.

Various scenes depict the tensions between overworked janitors and the supervisors who hound them, conflicts between the union and the cleaning companies and the energy of union rallies.

"It's a good story about workers and it's good for people who aren't part of the union already," said Leonidas Velasquez, a union member and the lead man in a janitorial team that cleans a Downtown office tower. "At least with a union you have someone to back you up."

Velasquez said the book's easy-to-read format could be duplicated to assist union workers. "A lot of workers make the mistake of not reading their contracts and even some union members don't know their rights," he said.

Gilberto Velasquez (no relation), who lives near MacArthur Park and works as a janitor in Westwood, said the story gives readers a taste of how janitors are treated by supervisors working for the cleaning companies. But while the book focuses on the union's victories, he said he is disappointed that the real-life union has yet to gain health benefits for its members working in Westwood or resolve many complaints against supervisors.

"It's nice that the union gets the recognition and it's great to see a book that deals with real-life issues," said Jono Shaffer, a union organizer. "To use it as an organizing tool, we would have wanted it to have a heavier focus on how to organize, how to fight and get out and raise hell. But from the standpoint that it shows that we can win, it's good."

A publication party is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Midnight Special Bookstore, 1350 3rd St., Santa Monica.

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