florian schneider on Tue, 6 Jun 2000 22:40:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Share The Wealth, Janitors Demand, But Life Could Get Worse Before It Gets Better

forwarded by Michael Hoover <hoov@freenet.tlh.fl.us>

Published on Friday, June 2, 2000 in the http://www.mercurycenter.com/ 
San Jose (CA) Mercury News

Share The Wealth,' Janitors Demand, But Life Could Get Worse Before It
Gets Better

by K. Oanh Ha

Gemma Martinez remembers how she and her husband Abel would put their
three children to bed and then talk late into the night about the
future. They would leave Mexico City for the United States, work hard
and buy a home. But things change. A year and a half later, Martinez is
a hard-working widow in East Palo Alto, still full of hope, but far from
her dreams.

As contract negotiations for Bay Area janitors go into their final round
today and talk of "strike'' fills the air, life for some 5,500 workers
and their families may get worse before it gets better.

The hours are rotten, the pay is low. Five days a week, Martinez leaves
her three school-aged children in the care of relatives to clean
cubicles, empty wastebaskets, mop and vacuum on two floors at the campus
of software giant Oracle Corp. in Redwood City. Her ride for the
graveyard shift arrives around 7 p.m. and she doesn't return home until
4:30 a.m., in time to catch a few winks before getting the kids ready
for school.

"I never imagined things would be so difficult here, but the children
will have opportunities they wouldn't have if we stayed in Mexico,''
said Martinez, 34. "At least they won't be janitors.''

Demanding that Silicon Valley firms "share the wealth,'' Martinez and
other members of Local 1877 in the Service Employees International Union
are closely watching the outcome of today's negotiations. The master
contract that covers the estimated 75 percent of Bay Area janitors
expired Wednesday. No matter how long talks go today, by Saturday the
workers will vote whether to accept the maintenance contractors' final
offer or walk out= .

They want raise, medical benefits

 In a valley where millionaires are fast becoming passe and where stock
options and a BMW Z3 are virtually assumed to be the birthright of every
techie, the janitors say they're not demanding much. They want a
three-year contract, with annual pay hikes of $1.30 and medical benefits
fully paid by the employers. They now make between $7.64 and $8.04 an

Wednesday, the firms improved their first offer proposing a four-year
contract and a 50-cent raise the first year, followed by 40 cents the
next three years. The offer would cover only current union members and
not new hires, creating a two-tier system that's unacceptable, union
officials said. The San Francisco Employers Council, which represents
the 12 largest contractors that employ the janitors, has declined to

Martinez works for the janitorial firm Service by Medallion, but also
indirectly for one of the richest men in the world, Oracle founder Larry
Ellison. She earns $8.04 an hour, the average janitor's wage in Silicon
Valley and East Bay. Her annual salary comes to $16,723, putting her
below the poverty line in Santa Clara County, where social services
defines poor as an income below $17,052 for a family of four.

"People around here... they drive new cars, they take vacations and
spend so much money on fun things,'' said Martinez, a soft-spoken,
petite woman who smiles often. "They would be horrified if they could
only imagine our lives.''

In many ways, Martinez's life is typical of janitors in the area. Most
work two jobs, sacrificing time with their families. The average
janitor's household, with both parents working, logs 104 hours per week,
according to a survey conducted by the union. To afford rent, many
families team up to share apartments and even garages. In nearly
one-third of janitors' households, children must sleep in the living
room. Like Martinez, many can't afford cars.

Martinez's family is one of three sharing a three-bedroom house in East
Palo Alto. She pays $450 for a bedroom, just big enough to fit two
double beds. She's proudly decorated the walls with certificates of her
children's academic achievements. At one end, she's hung a curtain so
they can dress with some privacy. The one thing they don't lack is a
computer, which was loaned by the children's school.

Her take-home pay is $1,050 a month, half of which goes to rent and
utilities. The rest pays for clothing, food and expenses, such as the
$50 that goes to a co-worker who drives her to work and back.

"We're not asking for much,'' said Martinez. "It's very little. I just
want a bigger room for me and the children, maybe even one with our own

Martinez says she doesn't understand why a company as big and powerful
as Oracle, which logged profits of $1.3 billion last year, doesn't
intervene to help struggling workers. Oracle says janitors like Martinez
aren't Oracle employees. "It's an issue between the janitors and their
contractors,'' said Jennifer Glass, Oracle's spokeswoman.

That's a technicality to Martinez and other janitors. "I clean the
offices for Oracle, not the offices of Medallion.'' Medallion, the
company that's the direct employer of Martinez, didn't return phone
calls to its San Jose office.

 Workers at the lowest stratum of the valley remain largely invisible.
Many rotate in and out as temporary workers, or are hired through
contractors, as are cafeteria staff and janitors. The sought-after perks
for these workers are health insurance, sick days and an hourly salary
that's more than a single digit.

"The people who are working in the cafeterias, people who clean the
bathrooms inside high-tech companies aren't the highest priorities,''
said Benita Kenn, an independent public relations consultant who
specializes in high tech. "Large companies, whether they're in high tech
or or anything else, look at what's the primary impact to their business
first. And that's not who cleans their bathrooms.''

Self-sufficiency to a point Entrepreneurism is no social cure-all

Known for its libertarian attitudes and pride in meritocracy, many in
the high-tech ranks believe in self-sufficiency, a notion that's
fundamental to entrepreneurialism and innovation in Silicon Valley. Such
beliefs, social commentators say, falls short when applied toward social
problems. "The attitude in the valley that anyone should be able to
start his own company and become a millionaire if they tried hard enough
simply doesn't apply to everyone,'' said Kirk O. Hanson, senior lecturer
in business ethics at Stanford Business School.

 Martinez, in some ways, has bootstrapped herself as much as someone in
her situation can. She enrolled in an English class shortly after
arriving. But after six months, she dropped the classes to work a second
job two days a week, cleaning homes after her night shift. On those
days, she'll be awake and working for 22 hours.

With money so tight, Martinez admits she's scared of the prospect of a
strike. In Mexico she was also a janitor, cleaning the subways. Five
years ago, when she and her fellow workers went on strike for 15 days,
they resorted to begging on the streets to feed their families.

Union organizers here have assured workers they won't go hungry. It's
preparing to make a $2 million fund available to help striking workers
pay rent and feed their families. It's also hooked up with local
community and religious groups to set up food banks.

Still, Martinez is worried. She says her relatives will help but she
knows life is unpredictable.

Just two years ago, she was married to a Mexico City police officer.
Though they also owned a tiny neighborhood grocery store, they wanted
better opportunities for their children. So they sold their store,
tapped their savings and made plans. Martinez arrived in Silicon Valley
with the children first. Abel had only weeks to go until he was vested
in his pension plan and would soon follow.

Just 15 days after she arrived in Silicon Valley, Abel was killed while
on duty. She didn't have enough money to go back for his funeral.

"It sometimes feels like a dream. A nightmare, actually. But what can
you do?''

She's too proud to admit that they're poor. But she knows it. They shop
at second-hand stores for most things. Her brother and sister-in-law
routinely buy their food because Martinez can't afford it.

"When janitors talk about justice and dignity, it's precisely things
like being able to buy clothing for your family, spending time with your
children, taking your kids out to do something fun,'' said Blanca
Gallegos, a union spokeswoman. "These are things someone else wouldn't
consider luxuries but for janitors they are luxuries.''

Martinez has little time to spend with 7-year-old Abel, 9-year-old
Elvira and 10-year-old Victor each day, getting them ready for school in
the mornings and feeding them before she leaves for work in the evening.
She sometimes calls them around their bedtime to make sure they're
tucked in. Elvira sometimes cradles a photo of her mother in bed with

"Sometimes the kids will say, 'Mommy, let's go out and play.' If I say
no, they say, 'You don't love me anymore.' I try to explain it to them.
But they're children, they don't understand.''

At a recent Saturday meeting, union officials updated workers on the
negotiations and prepared them for the realities of a strike.

By the end of the meeting, Martinez had volunteered to be a strike
captain to help coordinate logistics.

"No one really wants a strike,'' said Martinez later. "But it's the only
way to pressure these companies so they realize there's value in our
work. If we don't fight for it now, we'll never get ahead.''

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