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A Retired Janitor's Account
By Walter Ballin
Mon, 16 Aug 2004

I WAS A MEMBER of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 87 in San Francisco from 1980 until 1999. The local's management worked in tandem with the building maintenance contractors. However, it was my experience that the local's leadership did not represent the members. Here is my account:

In November 1997, the office building that I was working in became vacant. It was a Blue Shield building where I enjoyed an excellent work enviornment. After the building was vacated, the contractor (I was employed by) cut my hours from full-time to 27 hours and then to 12(one of the buildings that the contractor sent me to afterwards had gone non-union). This particular contractor had just taken over my building(the Blue Shield building that became vacant) one year prior. Under the union contract, that contractor took over my seniority of which I had 18 years. It was a small contractor and supposedly the contractor didn't have another building to place me in. I was forced to go back to the hiring hall and get dispatches to buildings that the prior contractor (whom I was employed by), cleaned. I lost all of my seniority. My pay went down from $13.75 per hour to something like $9.69 per hour. On several occasions, I made requests to the local to properly represent me, by arranging with the contractor to place me into a permanent position and restore my seniority and pay. I was repeatedly rebuffed in my attempts. During this time, I heard of many instances from reliable sources that there were new janitors obtaining jobs in buildings without ever having to follow the union's rules, by going to the hiring hall to obtain a dispatch. On one occasion, while working in a building where I had to obtain a dispatch, I found out that a 16-year-old fellow was working there without a dispatch. It was for one night. He happened to be the son of another janitor, whom the contractor allowed to come in and work. This was just one of many cases, where the Local 87 officials simply turned their heads. There was also a situation where a contractor, fired a foreman for sexual harassment. The local arranged for him to be hired on as a foreman for another contractor with full seniority. I heard that he even received $1.00 per hour more with the new contractor. There were many cases where janitors faced disciplinary action, including loss of income, for not being able to handle the heavy workloads. They did not receive proper representation from the local. In fact, one business agent actually told members that the problem was their fault. During this period, several Local 87 members of various ethnicities concurred with me about the wrongdoing on the part of the local's leadership. Many office buildings were going non-union. While a good part of that was because of greed on the part of building owners, part of that was because of the mismanagement of the local.

Early in 2002 the international of the SEIU, took over the local and merged it with Local 1877, a janitors local that covers much of California. For a long time, there were calls from members for the international to step in. I also wrote a letter to the international about my situation, but assistance was not forthcoming. It is better late than never that the takeover occurred. I believe that the only reason that it did was because of so many office buildings going non-union. Although it doesn't matter personally to me anymore, it is my hope that there will be a major improvement. As a rule, I don't believe in locals covering such a large area, but there was no other alternative at the time. With a large majority of local 87 members not being American citizens, and many of them not English speaking, this perpetuated a situation that the old leadership was able to take advantage of. The structure made it very difficult for members, who believed in a properly functioning union, to attempt to improve things. In stating this, I don't want to be misunderstood as being anti-immigrant. In order for the labor movement to have more clout, union officials must do a much better job representing their members. Labor must do much more to encourage its members to learn English, to become American citizens, register to vote, and turn out to the polls on Election Day.

Walter Ballin
Chico, CA

Additional Remarks by Walter Ballin

RECENTLY, I was informed that most of the San Francisco janitors voted to decertify from SEIU, and form a separate union, the United Service Workers For Democracy. I heard that SEIU Local 1877 President Mike Garcia, did not do any better in representing the members than the former Local 87 President Richard Leung. I was informed that the heavy workloads of the San Franicsco office building janitors have continued to increase. I received some information about a janitor, who dropped dead on the job at the Trans-America building. Apparently the janitor's death was caused by a terrible heavy workload, which was so heavy that she didn't have time to take her lunch and breaks. The article stated that for the immediate 45 minutes before her passing, the janitor was subjected to prolonged verbal and psychological abuse, by her One Source Building Maintenance managers. When the janitor appealed to Local 1877 for help with her problems, apparently she was told by the business agents that "You are being paid very well to perform your assigned duties. If you don't like it, look for another job, because there are several members at the union who are able and waiting for an opportunity to take your job." I can relate to this, because I worked in some buildings, where the workload was unreasonably heavy, and I received simular responses from the Local 87 Business Agents.

With all that I wrote here, maybe I still would have voted against decertifying from the SEIU, were I still a janitor. Considering the fact that most of the janitors in the local are not American citizens and that so many don't speak English fluently, I don't see how they can run a union. The janitors need to have some affiliation with the AFL-CIO. However I learned that the United Service Workers do have Dan Siegel as their attorney, who is giving them advice. Hopefully my skepticism will prove false, and that their new union will be successful. Perhaps it will be a good thing afterall, that the janitors threw out the SEIU. What good does an SEIU contract that provides wages and benefits on paper do, if the janitors work in sweatshops? What good does such a contract do if the janitors can be downsized, suspended, and fired, and receive no union representation? If organized labor is to grow, it must do a much better job in representing its members. It must stop simply blaming the Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan, Bush, and the Republicans, because many labor leaders are also to blame for labor's decline. What is needed is a mass movement against oppression, all across the country.

Walter Ballin
Chico, CA

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