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How a Janitors Union in San Francisco Bought Over Its Concern and Struck

After contract negotiations stalled, hundreds of janitors in San Francisco, represented by Service Employees (SEIU) Local 87, went on March 24.

About 3,000 caretakers in the Bay Area were laid off as the pandemic spread last year. Your union is now calling for all laid-off workers to return to work – but with improvements.

They want better ventilation in buildings, protective equipment for workers, a wage increase, health insurance, additional sick days and protection against sexual harassment for a workforce that is predominantly made up of black migrant women.

At least 26 custodian banks died after being infected with the coronavirus. Workers want improved ventilation.

The three-day strike came to an impasse after eight months of contract negotiations with Able Service and ABM Industries, two contractors that provide cleaning services in downtown office buildings.

The cleaning companies have moved to curtail the union to make seniority concessions and refuse to bargain in good faith, union leaders say.

“In my opinion, they did not come to negotiate. They didn’t want to give anything, but they wanted to take everything, ”said caretaker and negotiating team member Marcos Aranda, 30, father of six.


The janitors clean 600 buildings across San Francisco, including engineering offices on Google, Facebook, and Salesforce.

Strikers picketed across town. Some gathered by the gleaming 1,000-foot Salesforce Tower. This monolith, like many office buildings, was largely empty due to remote work.

The strike coincided with tech workers from Twitter and other California companies returning to offices under state health directives as San Francisco headed for reopening.

While the janitors don’t negotiate directly with tech companies, these powerful companies are the ultimate target as they have the power to move the cleaning companies from intransigence to negotiation.


While other key workers were celebrated during the pandemic, janitors did not receive the same fanfare.

“There were no parades, no boiling in the cellars of buildings, no hammering pots,” said Olga Miranda, President of SEIU Local 87. “These are the quiet workers who go to work with dignity and nobody but their union makes a fuss makes.”

Caretaker wages of $ 22-23 are not enough to live in San Francisco. Look for an apartment in town to rent and the sticker shock will make you dizzy.

According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a parent raising a child in San Francisco is $ 56. For two children, it’s $ 68.93.

The strike was over unfair labor practices that revolved around seniority and safety. The cleaning companies are demanding concessions from the union – in particular, the power to use criteria other than seniority to select which workers will be recalled from layoffs.

Seniority determines, for example, who prefers vacation time or who returns to work after being laid off.

“It’s a very slippery slope when you let employers set criteria for who can come back,” said Miranda, running through a series of hypothetical scenarios: “So if companies say good when the person can’t speak English, it’s us.” she doesn’t want to go back. If she’s a woman, we may not want her back. If they are Muslims and have prayed too much because it’s Ramadan, we may not want them back. ”

Overcoming fear

Aranda has been a janitor for 10 years after recovering from low-wage food service jobs. During the pandemic, he continued to work in the janitorial service for Pacific Gas & Electric Company, earning $ 23.30 an hour as a foreman.

He is grateful that he stayed on the payroll even though his building was vacant and other workers struggled to raise money to cover the bills.

Bills are often in Aranda’s head. In preparation for the strike, he took another job at OnTrac, a logistics company on the west coast, where he made $ 17 an hour delivering packages, with an extra dollar as a risk payment.

“There was a lot of fear,” he said, “you know, fear of not knowing what would happen afterwards. Did they want to lock us out? Would I be able to pay my bills? “

In part, he overcame this fear of sitting across from the bosses at the negotiating table, seeing them dig in their heels and rejecting any proposal from the union.

“If we had accepted, I would have felt weak,” he said.

When members argued in the union hall about whether to strike, Miranda said one member was lucky enough to have a job. Another replied, “Who will come to the company from the builder and apologize to your family for not doing enough to look after you? So we can fight while we are six feet above us, or we can mourn six feet below. “

“There are no superheroes. Nobody will fight for your families as much as you will fight for your own, ”adds Miranda. “And that’s why we’re on strike out there.”


The union’s membership is diverse – Latino, Black, White, Chinese and Yemeni with an average age of 55 years. They survived the pandemic while the rest of the country huddled at home and worked remotely. Their names filled the number of dead as governors reported weekly on the pandemic rampage.

“There is no normalcy to return to,” admits Miranda, pointing to the move away from floor plans for open offices as an early sign of how the workplace will change.

Additionally, the pandemic may still be with us for some time. President Joe Biden has urged governors across the country to reinstate mandates to wear masks and halt reopening efforts as the country faces another surge in infections.

Despite paying lip service to their victims, key workers barely made any profits during the pandemic. Many refused to disrupt essential services, even if they had the public support to do so. But that’s not the case with SEIU Local 87, a 5,000-member union that tops its weight – and is poised to escalate further from here.

“The biggest fear is not being able to put food on the table or knowing that you will lose the roof over your baby’s head,” said Miranda. “This is scary – scarier than a goddamn pandemic.”

Hundreds of SF caretakers are at STRIKE today.
The caretakers – mainly women, colored people and migrant workers – fight for a fair trade union contract with protection from sexual harassment and security measures!
Boost @Ableserve & @ABM_Industries #JusticeForJanitors pic.twitter.com/KR8bGd0P4A

– Justice for Janitors (@JusticeforJans) March 24, 2021

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