How a Janitors Union in San Francisco Got Over Its Fear and Struck

People in masks and purple SEIU 87 shirts picket in front of a bright window. Central person has a bullhorn. Others carry "ON STRIKE" signs and wear reflective vests.

Striking janitors picketed the huge Salesforce Tower and other office buildings, as tech workers begin to trickle back after months of remote work. Roughly 3,000 Bay Area janitors were laid off last year. They want everyone rehired, with improved ventilation and protective gear. Photo: SEIU Local 87

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

Roughly 3,000 Bay Area janitors were laid off as the pandemic spread last year. Their union is now demanding a return to work for all laid-off workers—but with improvements.

They want better ventilation in buildings, protective gear for workers, a wage increase, health coverage, additional sick days, and protections against sexual harassment for a workforce that is largely immigrant women of color.

At least 26 custodians have died after contracting the coronavirus. Workers are demanding improved ventilation.

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

The cleaning service contractors have moved to wallop the union, seeking concessions on seniority rights and refusing to bargain in good faith, union leaders say.

“In my eyes, they didn’t come to negotiate. They didn’t want to give anything, but they wanted to take everything,” said janitor and bargaining team member Marcos Aranda, 30, a father of six children.

TECH GIANTS

The janitors clean 600 buildings throughout San Francisco, including offices for tech workers at Google, Facebook, and Salesforce.

Strikers formed picket lines across the city. Some rallied at the gleaming 1,000-foot Salesforce Tower. This monolith, like many office buildings, has been sitting largely empty due to remote work.

The strike coincided with tech workers at Twitter and other companies in California beginning to trickle back into offices under state health orders as San Francisco moves towards reopening.

Although the janitors are not negotiating directly with tech companies, these powerful corporations are the ultimate target because they have the power to move the cleaning contractors from intransigence into negotiation.

ESSENTIAL BUT IGNORED

While other essential workers were lionized during the pandemic, janitors didn’t receive the same fanfare.

“There were no parades, no cooking sent to the basements of buildings, no banging pots,” SEIU Local 87 President Olga Miranda said. “These are the quiet workers, the ones who go to work with a lot of dignity and no one makes a big fuss over, except their union.”

The janitors’ $22-$23 wages aren’t enough for housing in San Francisco. Look up any apartment for rent in the city, and the sticker shock will give you vertigo.

According to MIT’s Living Wage calculator, a metric of what it takes to get by in a given place, a living wage for a parent raising one kid in San Francisco is $56. For two kids, it’s $68.93.

The strike was over unfair labor practices revolving around seniority and safety. The cleaning contractors are demanding concessions from the union—primarily, the power to use criteria other than seniority to pick which workers get called back from layoffs.

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Seniority determines, for example, who gets preference for vacation time or to return to work after layoffs.

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

OVERCOMING FEAR

Aranda has been working as a janitor for 10 years, after bouncing around from low-wage jobs in food service. Throughout the pandemic, he continued working in janitorial services at Pacific Gas & Electric Company, earning $23.30 hourly as a foreman.

He is thankful that he remained on the payroll even while his building sat empty and other workers were struggling to scrounge up money to cover bills.

Bills are often on Aranda’s mind. In preparation for the strike he picked up another job at OnTrac, a West Coast-based logistics company, where he began earning $17 hourly delivering packages, with an extra dollar added as hazard pay.

“There was a lot of fear,” he said, “you know, fear of not knowing what was gonna happen afterward. Were they going to lock us out? Was I going to be able to pay my bills?”

Partly he overcame that fear sitting across the negotiating table from the bosses, seeing them dig in their heels and reject every proposal the union put forward.

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

When members at the union hall were arguing about whether to strike, Miranda said, one member said they were fortunate to have a job. Another retorted, “Who is going to come from the building owner on down to the company and apologize to your family that they didn’t do enough to take care of you? So we can fight while we’re six feet above, or we can lament six feet under.”

“There are no superheroes. No one is going to fight for your families as much as you’ll fight for your own,” Miranda adds. “And that’s why we are out there on strike.”

KEEP ESCALATING

The union’s membership is diverse—Latino, Black, white, Chinese, and Yemeni, with an average age of 55. They worked through the pandemic while the rest of the country hunkered down at home, working remotely. Their names filled the tallies of the dead, as governors issued weekly reports of the pandemic’s rampage.

“There is no normal to return to,” Miranda concedes, pointing to the shift away from open-office floor plans as one early sign of how the workplace will change.

What’s more, the pandemic may still be with us for some time. President Joe Biden has called on governors across the nation to reinstate mask-wearing mandates and pause reopening efforts, as the country faces yet another surge in infections.

Despite the lip service paid to their sacrifices, essential workers have made scant gains during the pandemic. Many refused to disrupt essential services even when they had the public support to do so. But that’s not the case with SEIU Local 87, a 5,000-member union that is punching above its weight—and is ready to keep escalating from here.

“The biggest fear is not being able to put food on your table, or knowing you are going to lose the roof over your baby’s head,” Miranda said. “That’s scary—more scary than a damn pandemic.”

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes. luis@labornotes.org