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Janitors Fight Back Against Union Busting

By Gregory Flannery · July 25th, 2007 · Porkopolis
  Dena Smith and her children epitomize the union struggle.
Joe Lamb

Dena Smith and her children epitomize the union struggle.

As a union that represents Greater Cincinnati's janitors prepares to hold negotiation sessions July 25-26 with cleaning companies, it filed federal charges this week against the city's three largest cleaning contractors, alleging unfair labor practices. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is heading the "Justice for Janitors" movement, alleged that the companies illegally threatened and intimidated janitors involved in the effort. In all, 15 charges were filed alleging violations of the National Labor Relations Act. They include seven unfair labor practice charges against ABM, six charges against Professional Maintenance and two against Jancoa.

SEIU alleges that a janitor at one company was sent home without pay for wearing a purple "Justice for Janitors" T-shirt to work. Janitors in Cincinnati wear smocks over their street clothes and for months have been allowed to wear union T-shirts under their uniforms. Other janitors allegedly were told they'd be fired if they publicly supported the union at work, even for wearing a union pin on their shirts, according to SEIU. At other locations, janitors were forbidden from talking to co-workers about the union while in the building, even on breaks.

SEIU's local chapter, which represents more than 1,200 janitors who clean the majority of the region's office space, formed in December. Leaders are seeking increased pay and better access to health care for members. SEIU has been negotiating with cleaning companies since March but have made little progress, and the union voted July 14 to authorize a strike. Federal law bars companies from permanently replacing workers if they strike to protest unfair labor practices. Also, a group of faith leaders is showing support for the union-organizing effort. Several clergy members gathered last week at Rockdale Baptist Church in Avondale to talk about the movement.

"These people make up the heart and soul of our churches," said the Rev. Gregory Chandler, who heads the AMOS Project. Churches must not only be concerned about people's spiritual needs but also with their welfare and health, he said. "It's all important to God," he said, "and because it's important to God it's important to us."

Attending the event was Dena Smith of Avondale, a janitor who makes $7 per hour and has no health care coverage for herself or her three sons, ages 14, 11 and 7.

"I can barely keep up on my rent sometimes," she said. "I can barely keep up on my phone bill. With (my sons) by my side and looking at them every day, that makes me go to work and that makes me want to do what I have to do so they don't have to go through what I'm going through right now."

Many of the people who seek food at church pantries have jobs but can't afford to take care of their families on their salaries, says the Rev. Rousseau O'Neal, president of the Faith Community Alliance and head of the Rockdale Baptist Church.

"The 'working poor' is an oxymoron statement," O'Neal says. "That is ludicrous, working in poverty. Those who do the most work make the least amount of money."

Rounding Up the Newcomers

A proposal in the Ohio House of Representatives includes some extreme standards and unfunded mandates designed to root out, punish and remove "illegal aliens" from the Buckeye State. In addition to making "illegally transporting or concealing an alien" a third degree felony -- equivalent to possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs, supporting terrorism, facilitating a riot and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor -- the bill would require all state agencies and contractors to participate in a "system to verify the eligibility status of all new employees."

State Rep. Courtney Combs (R-Hamilton) is the sponsor of the yet-to-be-numbered bill. There is no documentation to prove these provisions and others will have any impact on the number of undocumented workers in Ohio, according to Jason Riveiro, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latino Citizens (LULAC).

"Just as important as it is to enforce the issue, I think it goes hand-in-hand that we need to have a monitoring system for racial profiling," Riveiro says. "Everything that they want to do with transportation -- that they're going to crack down on anyone who transports illegals -- how are they going to enforce that? There's going to be racial profiling. They need some sort of accountability on their end. This country has a proven track record having issues with that. If the FBI had problem with it, local government is going to have problems with it."

For more news about mistreatment of undocumented immigrants and other workers, visit CityBeat's Porkopolis blog at blogs.citybeat.com/porkopolis.

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