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Janitors Stage 1-Day Walkout at Chapman

Labor: Workers hoping to form a union allege unfair practices by firm hired to clean university. 'We respect their rights,' the company's CEO says.


In what was called the first strike by custodians in Orange County history, janitors at Chapman University staged a one-day walkout to protest what they allege are unfair labor practices by their employer.

Fourteen janitors who work at the college as employees of Irvine-based Pacific Building Care Inc. walked off the job Thursday night. On Friday, about 100 people--mostly janitors and their families--marched on the university campus in Orange chanting, "No justice, no peace."

Hours later, the strikers returned to work.

"What we want is respect on the job and a voice at work," said Eloy Aguilar, 32, one of the strikers.

The strike is the latest action in a months-long effort by the Service Employees International Union to organize about 200 workers at more than a dozen Orange County sites where Pacific Building Care does business.

"The workers felt it was the only way to send a message to Pacific that they are serious about having their rights respected," said organizing coordinator Aida Cardenas.

It also is part of a long-term effort by SEIU Local 1877 to unionize all of Orange County's janitors, Cardenas said.

In January 2001, about 70% of the county's janitors won better wages and benefits in their first contract with the county's biggest custodial companies. The organizing effort came less than a year after a three-week strike by janitors in Los Angeles attracted national attention.

The organizing effort at Pacific Building Care began in April and has led to the filing of three complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. They allege the company threatened to retaliate against workers for trying to organize, unlawfully interrogated them and offered wage increases and other benefits as an incentive to not join the union.

"The cases are still under investigation," said James Small, assistant to the NLRB's regional director in Los Angeles.

Jennifer Corbett-Shramo, Pacific's chief executive, said the company has done nothing to thwart its workers' organizing effort.

"We respect their rights," she said. The decision whether to unionize "is entirely in the hands of the people."

"We have a very stable turnover base," she added. "In an industry that has an average of 300% turnover [each year], we have less than 70%. That's remarkably low, and that's because we take such good care of our people."

Cardenas said the company in May raised salaries for employees at Chapman and other sites where the SEIU was trying to organize workers. In addition, janitors at Chapman are to begin getting health insurance Oct. 1.

The two sides don't agree on much--including the level of participation in the one-day strike at Chapman. Cardenas said 14 of 20 workers walked out. Corbett-Shramo did not dispute the number who walked out but said her company employs more than 40 janitors at the college.

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