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Janitorial workers protest layoffs

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday January 11, 2002

About 40 Service Employees International Union workers protested Thursday outside the government offices at 1947 Center St. challenging the property manager’s replacement of three union janitorial workers with nonunion workers, who earn less money and are not covered by medical benefits. 

The mostly Spanish-speaking SEIU members, who chanted: “Sin dignidad, no hay paz” and “Sin justicia, no hay paz,” at the building entrance, were joined by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and about seven State Department of Health employees who work in the building.  

Some of the workers wore New Year’s Eve party hats to call attention to the “un-happy new year” layoffs. 

In early December, Gerson Baker and Associates, the building’s property management company, canceled the janitorial contract with Universal Building Services, which had been in place for 13 years. UBS, a unionized company based in Richmond, had to give notice to the three janitors who performed the maintenance work in the six-story building. The three tenants in the building are the city of Berkeley, the State of California and University of California. 

“The janitors have been replaced with a company that pays their workers $7.50 an hour and offers no medical or vacation benefits,” said Alyssa Giachino, am organizer with the SEIU Local 1877. “This is a trend we are seeing more frequently in the janitorial industry.” 

The three janitors, Maria and Leon Munoz and Aldalberto Mendoza, were told during the first week of December that their jobs were coming to an end on Dec. 28. The Munozes had worked at the building for 13 years. All three were making $10 an hour and more importantly, they say, UBS offered medical benefits, which their families depended on. 

“We worked very hard here for many years and we don’t understand how the property manager can make this decision,” Maria Munoz said. 

Giachino said the union has asked UBS to reassign the janitors, but were told there are currently no jobs available. All three were put on a UBS waiting list. 

Giachino said Gerson Baker and Associates signed a new contract with California Janitorial Exchange, which subcontracted the janitorial contract to a smaller company that pays less and provides no medical benefits. 

“This type of sub, sub contract is a real problem because every time you sub contract it means less wages for the person who actually does the work,” Giachino said. 

State Department of Health Services employee Jolie Pearl who came out of the building to join the protest said Gerson Baker and Associates were clearly motivated by economic reasons. 

“These janitors do a really good job and I think it’s reprehensible that that the management company would take these jobs away from people who already don’t earn a living wage,” she said. “I know this is about money.” 

Gerson Baker manager Lori Samuel did not return calls to the Daily Planet on Thursday. 

The city signed a $2.5 million, five-year lease with Gerson and Baker last year for 18,000-square-feet of office space, which is used as administrative offices for the Department of Public Works.  

Worthington said he is considering asking the City Council to approve a resolution that would prevent the city from leasing commercial space from property managers that don’t contract with union companies. 

He added that he was in the process of reviewing the city’s lease with Gerson Baker and Associates to see if there is a possibility of breaking the lease.  

“The cost of leasing office space is coming down,” he said. “It may be that we can find something less expensive, which would be beneficial to both the city and the workers.” 

Giachino said she added that she was very grateful for the support of the Department of Health Services employees who joined the protest. 

“In the past it has been very difficult to gain support for janitorial workers,” she said. “They are often immigrants and the vast majority of them work at night when no one is around. For years they have been the invisible work force.”