It was a gorgeously crisp, sunny day down by the harbor last Thursday as a yacht cruised on the glistening water and joggers made their way along the embarcadero. A handful of tourists were milling about near the Star of India while others headed toward the Brigantine for an early lunch. Picture postcard perfect San Diego was in full display, and you could almost hear the theme music kicking in for a TV commercial selling the boosters’ version of our city to the world.
Welcome to America’s Finest City, the place where happy happens.
But, as I made my way across the wet green grass in front of the County Administration building, another story was unfolding about the other San Diego, a city where underpaid, beleaguered service sector workers can barely afford to pay the rent and must struggle to keep up with the cost of living. In this San Diego, the sunny good life we market to the world stands in sharp contrast to the reality of the lives of the working people whose labor makes the county run.
On this day I was there to join a rally of janitors protesting the horrible working conditions imposed upon them by NOVA, the janitorial contractor for the County. At the protest put on by SEIU-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), janitors, largely immigrant women, spoke about being illegally terminated for speaking up against unfair working conditions, with one reporting that she was taken to a basement bathroom, “forced to kneel and remove wax from the floor with a knife and chemicals for eight hours causing nausea, bloodshot eyes, and vomiting.”
After doing this all day without receiving any protective equipment such as a face mask or goggles, this worker was then asked to perform the same task the next day. SEIU-USWW provided photos of the incident that you can see here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/y4ymff2p4pvt1jd/AACO_lzwr4EM7ycjt5_Ia60Sa?dl=0. In addition to this abusive practice, other workers have filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board regarding harassment, retaliation, and other forms of intimidation. All of this prompted the janitors to strike to force the County to live up to the vision of the sweeping pro-worker policies approved by the Board of Supervisors in December of last year, remove NOVA as the janitorial contractor, re-instate all illegally fired workers with back pay, end retaliation, and provide the janitors with a union contract.
At the rally, local faith leader Imam Taha Hassane opened the event by noting that when employers deal with working conditions, many things are negotiated but “the one thing that is not negotiable is human dignity.” Genoveva Aguilar of SEIU-USWW observed that the County Administration building itself was built for “poor people, regular people, not the rich,” underlining the obscenity that workers could be treated so poorly in a place paid for by the taxes of all San Diegans. The janitors were then treated to a host of solidarity statements from a wide array unions and community groups from around the county and then, after a lively picket, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher came out to show support for their cause.
After the last of the speakers was finished, I talked with Christian Ramirez, Policy Director for SEIU-USWW, who noted that the incident exposes what a “disgusting industry” was created when, years ago, the County outsourced janitorial work to private contractors who do everything they can to pay the lowest wages and exploit their workers with few consequences. Ramirez pointed out that “these used to be middle class jobs with benefits” when the janitors worked for the County. “Now they practice the worst kind of exploitation against a workforce that is primarily composed of immigrant women.” Perhaps, Ramirez observed, the long-term solution is to insource the workers to take bad actors like NOVA out of the equation. In the short term, however, the janitors need immediate and basic justice and dignity in their workplace.
As I left the rally, I couldn’t help but think that just a few days before I had spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Alliance San Diego’s All Peoples breakfast celebrating Dr. King’s legacy. Toward the end of his life, King came to view poor peoples’ struggle for economic rights as something that was inextricably linked to basic civil rights and full citizenship in American democracy. The task, King noted, was “to be dissatisfied until America will no longer have high blood pressure of creeds and anemia of deeds.”
At present, it could not be clearer that despite having passed a bold new pro-worker policy, the County of San Diego needs to do right by its workers and match its new creed with deeds.
This should start by bringing justice to the janitors.
Note: As of this writing the strike is in a two week cooling off period pending action by the Board of Supervisors