Public Comment

Union Did Little for Mina

By Walter Ballin
Tuesday August 03, 2010 - 01:10:00 PM

As a former janitor and member of SEIU Local 87 for 19 years from 1980-1999 including my having been a shop steward, I found Teresa Mina's story "This Law is Very Unjust!" about the feds removing her from her job very heartbreaking. I am strongly opposed to immigrant bashing. I support legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to pay their fine and to become American citizens, and the process for people to become citizens must be speeded up. However I do believe that Local 87 and I suppose other unions are doing very little to encourage their members to learn English, to become American citizens, register to vote, and learn about the unions that they belong to. I certainly found this to be the case with Local 87. Why didn't the Local 87 officials help members like Teresa Mina fill out their employment applications with the contractors, and see to it that they had the documents that they needed to present? 

Here is the story of the last couple of years of my experience as an SEIU Local 87 member. In November 1997, the office building that I was working in became vacant. It was a good day job in a Blue Shield building where I enjoyed an excellent work environment. 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 afterwords 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. I I also must mention that during the 1990's, it seemed to me and some other Local 87 members who I spoke with of various ethnicities that there was at least an unofficial arrangement between the union and the contractors to give jobs to new immigrants at the expense of American citizens, including those who were longtime union members. 

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 in the presence of management. During this period, several Local 87 members 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. 

When I joined SEIU Local 87, the union was led by President Robert Parr. Under him and officials who preceded him such as Herman Eimers, Rex Kennedy, and the founders Charles and George Hardy, janitors enjoyed excellent wages, benefits, and working conditions. Unfortunately during the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st Century, workloads in many of San Francisco's high-rise office buildings drastically increased along with a deterioration of working conditions. Teresa Mina's mentioning that often because of the very heavy workloads, she didn't have time to take her lunch or breaks, sounds very familiar to me. Nothing has changed, I see. The job of a labor union, is to represent its members and among other things, to see to it that the members have decent working conditions and that the workloads are humanly possible to perform. 

As for what happened to me, I ended up going on workers comp in early 1999 due to back injuries and a hernia. I settled my case. I am retired and I'm very active in community affairs in Chico, California where I live.