The unlikely agitator
The ‘Justice for Janitors’ firebrand on the struggle to unionize: ‘I’m not invisible anymore. I’m never going to be.’
Monica Martinez-Vargas knows what it’s like to be invisible.
For much of her career, she worked two shifts in downtown Denver – one cleaning hotel rooms and the other cleaning office buildings.
In the mornings, she’d report to work in her maid’s dress and apron, pushing her housekeeping cart up and down a hotel hallway where she had eight hours to clean 16 rooms regardless of how many clothes were strewn across the floor or how much ketchup needed to be scraped off a lampshade. The goal was to be as quick and inconspicuous as possible stripping beds, changing sheets, replacing towels, vacuuming the carpet, dusting furniture, scrubbing the tub, disinfecting the toilet, scouring the sink and folding the end of each bathroom tissue roll into a crisp, neat triangle – all between the time a businessman left for breakfast at 7:15, say, and returned to his room for a conference call at 8 a.m..
The hotel guests would pass Martinez-Vargas in the hall. Some would nod. Some would ask for “more towels, please, gracias.” And some didn’t seem to notice her at all.
She was even more invisible in the office buildings where she worked at night. Long after white-collar hours, she’d empty trashcans, dust window blinds and sweep crumbs from the cubicles of people for whom she was out of sight and out of mind, as if their offices were tidied somehow by magic.
By the mid-1980s, when Martinez-Vargas had moved to Denver from Mexico by way of California, most small companies that cleaned office buildings had been elbowed out by big janitorial contractors that typically hired Central American workers for minimum wage and no benefits. It was dirty work, literally and figuratively. Most janitors were undocumented immigrants who lived in fear of losing their jobs and being deported, or even noticed, for that matter.
Invisibility had its soul-sucking loneliness. But as a form of survival, it was the safest way to work.
“It was dehumanizing, working alone, in shadows. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t have any connections. That made us vulnerable to the things they did to us, the humiliations. You could see the injustice. But you felt like you couldn’t do anything to stop it,” she says, interpreted from Spanish by Lauren Martens, state council executive director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in which Martinez-Vargas, 69, is still active six years after retiring.
SEIU represents janitors, security officers, health care workers and state employees.
The history of organized labor in Colorado is dotted with far more defeats than victories. The Ludlow Massacre 100 years ago this week was rock bottom. The 1977 strike against Coors Brewing Company marked another low point, although without the bloodshed.
As many labor activists see it, Colorado’s high point started in 1986 with a quiet revolution called “Justice for Janitors.” The movement emerged as janitorial contracts were landing in the hands of increasingly bigger and fewer companies, and SEIU’s membership had dwindled.
“With the downturn of the real estate economy in the 80’s, the owners started shifting to non-union contractors and eroding union density in our markets,” says Mitch Ackerman, who was an organizing director and later president for SEIU’s Local 105.
Like many of her coworkers earning close to the minimum wage, Martinez-Vargas needed two jobs to pay for her rent, electricity, food and health care, when she could afford it. She had just herself to support, and with the two paychecks, she was still barely making it.
Nationally, SEIU aimed to change its organizing tactics by focusing on unionizing an entire metro area, not just a single city or individual companies. As a testing ground, it picked Denver where it started by pressuring city officials not to contract with companies that used union crews to clean city buildings but non-union workers in private ones. It also pressured the companies that owned the buildings – often investment funds backed by union pensions. Janitors started picketing for higher wages, steadier work hours, health care benefits, vacation time and sick leave. They sat on the sidewalks. And they chanted. “Si se puede!” “Yes we can!”
Martinez-Vargas remembers the thrill of the struggle.
“We were humble people showing that we had power by going out onto the streets, marching and making noise,” she says. “We had so much fear and didn’t think we could change anything. But there we were, putting our hearts into it. The owners were afraid seeing us go out onto the streets. But we went out anyway, despite the police, despite the owners, They saw we were determined and that’s not easy. It was the most beautiful thing. It was really the most beautiful thing.”
The union managed to organize most buildings downtown by the mid-1990s. That’s when Martinez-Vargas got a job as a janitor at Denver International Airport, where she was paid enough to support herself working one job. With union protection, she went from working in fear and invisibility to doing her job with dignity.
“At the airport, I wasn’t thinking about the toilets I was cleaning. I was thinking about the people around me,” she says. “I felt like I could talk to them, pay attention to them, greet them, make them comfortable, answer their questions about where they could buy this or that, or where they could go smoke. It felt a little less heavy, my work that way, because of the relationship with people.”
Still, she says, she wasn’t satisfied. As long as other janitors were laboring without such protections, the five-foot-tall woman with the soft voice and painted nails pledged to continue the struggle.
“They say in the movement than an injury to one of us is an injury to all of us,” she says. “We needed to change things in the suburbs.”
By the suburbs, Martinez-Vargas means the massive Denver Tech Center and nearby office parks where one contractor, Maintenance Unlimited Inc., employed 30 percent of janitors. Most were making about $20 a night cleaning 18,000 square feet of office space, the equivalent of about twelve private homes. The company faced dozens of charges with the National Labor Relations Board for intimidating, harassing and firing workers who were complaining about their conditions. Smaller companies wouldn’t sign agreements allowing workers to unionize until Maintenance Unlimited changed its stance. At the time, workers for one company told news outlets that in retaliation for signing up with SEIU, they were forced to clean toilets with their bare hands rather than with brushes.
Martinez-Vargas volunteered to organize at the Tech Center after her shifts at the airport. The union paid her to take a leave of absence from her job to sign up janitors she says were so intimidated by their bosses that they at first refused to speak with her.
“It was understandable. Their job was everything. Companies would fire people for talking to us,” she says. “The security guards wouldn’t let us talk to them even outside the property. We were out there in snowstorms trying to talk with people. Some would run away. Or some would walk by and drop a paper on the ground with their phone number on it. That’s how we began to build a network of employees we could talk to.”
SEIU hung banners from overpasses on Interstate 25 and staged regular marches at the Tech Center. After a two-year struggle, the union won recognition by Maintenance Unlimited and other companies in 1998 and an interim suburban contract in 1999.
“Then we won big (with a) unified master contract including both downtown and the suburbs in 2000,” says Ackerman. The contract included a significant $1 an hour raise. Ackerman noted that the rest of metro Denver’s suburbs were organized gradually between 2000 and 2005 and, and that now the vast majority of all commercial office buildings larger than 50,000 square feet are cleaned by union members.
Martinez-Vargas was part of the negotiations seeking higher wages, full eight-hour work days and benefits for janitors.
“I remember an older man who one day came up to me and kissed me and said thank you. That was the best pay I’ve ever gotten. I’ve never forgotten that,” she says. “For one single worker, one single person to have benefitted from what we did, that’s enough for me. That makes me visible. I’m not invisible any more. I’m never going to be.”
Justice for Janitors took hold not just in Denver and its suburbs, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Houston and beyond. By 2005, twenty years after the movement started here, more than 68 percent of janitors in 20 of the nation’s biggest cities were organized.
The transformation for fellow janitors was Martinez-Vargas’ own transformation. She served on SEIU’s executive board for three terms and remains a member since retiring from her job at the airport at age 63. But the work isn’t over. She says non-union janitors and other workers will continue being exploited until U.S. immigration policy is reformed. Because so many of SEIU’s members – and service workers in general — are immigrants, the union is a major player pushing for national policy changes.
Martinez-Vargas is an unlikely firebrand. Her voice and hands tremble when she talks about how many beds she changed, floors she mopped and sinks she scrubbed during her career. “Many hours. Many hours of my life,” she says.
And she cries at the thought of strikers 100 years ago in the Colorado coal fields – miners whose work is unfamiliar and whose names she doesn’t know, but whose challenges as immigrants and whose fight for dignity helped make her own struggles easier.
“If I’m standing on a step, it’s because somebody built that stairway. Somebody built that stairway in that place, Ludlow,” she says.
“Somebody back then made it possible. And now it falls to me, to all of us, to build another step and keep making things possible for the people who come next.”
[ Top image by James Brennan; protest shot by SEIU. ]
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