About 40 janitors marched through Warner Center on Tuesday to protest what they called "sweatshop conditions" at Blue Cross of California, which hired a non-union company to handle office custodial services after negotiating a union contract with the firm that was doing the job.
Members of the Service Employees International Union, known as SEIU, Local 399, said they saw months of negotiations for higher wages and benefits with International Service Systems, or ISS, the former janitorial contractor for Blue Cross, wasted when the non-union employer was hired.
The contract, which was to go into effect July 1, guaranteed a 35-cent an hour raise for the 13 union members working for $4.25 an hour--the minimum wage--to clean Blue Cross offices, cafeterias and bathrooms.
That contract became void Monday when Blue Cross hired Able Building Maintenance, a Los Angeles-based non-union contractor that pays its employees the same $4.25 per hour.
A Blue Cross spokesman said the decision to hire the new contractor was strictly cost-oriented.
"We put out some bids to several companies and were looking for the best price we could get," he said. "Whether they were union or non-union had nothing to do with it."
Because federal law forbids the Local 399 members from protesting against Blue Cross, which does not directly employ the janitors, Tuesday's march was against the "substandard working conditions and poverty wages" instituted by Able Building Maintenance, union officials said..
A spokesman for Able Building Maintenance could not be reached for comment.
"These people are suffering under the minimum wage," said Jono Shaffer, Local 399's organizing coordinator. "This was the first time, under their employment with ISS, that the janitors were able to get any kind of raise and some benefits.
"There's no union control over the ways that Able Building Maintenance does business. If they wanted to, they could cut down on hours and, eventually, more janitors would be pushed out of work."
The protesters made their frustration over this prospect known by banging drums and shaking soda cans filled with BB pellets as they marched through the Blue Cross cafeteria and outside the company's administrative office building.
"We want justice now," shouted one marcher, as he beeped his bullhorn at a crowd of surprised people eating lunch in the company cafeteria.
At one point, the marchers tried to storm their way past Blue Cross security guards who were blocking the entrance to the administrative building.