Justice for Janitors in Silicon Valley

By Elliott, Victoria | UNESCO Courier, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Justice for Janitors in Silicon Valley


Elliott, Victoria, UNESCO Courier


By exposing the flagrant gap between rich and poor, janitors in America's high-tech heartland have captured nationwide attention in their fight for decent working conditions

Vicente Mendoza, an immigrant from Mexico, travels about 15 miles (24 km) through the rush hour traffic each morning from Oakland, California, to his first job in San Ramon, where he shows up to work in a restaurant at 9 a.m. After five hours of work, he stops home again for a couple of hours, then crosses the San Mateo Bridge over the San Francisco bay and heads for the offices of Advanced Micro Devices, 26 miles (40 km) away in Sunnyvale. Here, he works as a janitor for his second shift of the day, from 6 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. The office workers are gone; only a few late night stragglers see him push his cart around, loaded with cleaning fluid and mops. By the time he gets home again, it's 3:15 a.m.

It's surprising he had any energy left over to march, but this spring Mendoza was one of the 5,500 janitors in Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, who came out with the Justice for Janitors movement to rally in Sunnyvale for decent working conditions and better wages. They wore red T-shirts to make the point that invisible as they are, working out of the public view, they were determined to be seen.

Tenuous contracts

In this they succeeded. Low-paid workers in a high-tech economy, they managed to capture attention nationwide as cast-offs of the unprecedented growth in Silicon Valley. Working relentlessly to try to make ends meet, they have been left behind by an industry that has grown faster and produced more wealth than any other in the history of the world.

At the WorldTrade Organization protests in Seattle in December, there was little talk of this volatile nexus of the world economy. And yet, according to one of the Seattle protesters, Raj Jayadev--a young Bay Area activist who grew up in San Jose as the son of Indian immigrants--Silicon Valley brings together the key issues raised by globalization.

"The labour struggle, the environmental degradation, the inequities, the falling standards of living, the importance of immigration -- it's all played out on the shop floors of Santa Clara County," he says. Jayadev describes how he worked on the assembly line at Hewlett Packard, lifting boxes with an electrical engineer from the Punjab, an Eritrean with a degree in finance and a plant owner from Kerala, India, all of whom were acutely conscious of their drop in status.

While some circuit board assembly lines have since been exported abroad, to Taiwan, Korea, India and East Germany, janitors need not worry that their employers will pull out and move elsewhere. The gleaming office buildings in Cupertino and on the man-made lake at Redwood Shores are not going away.

But the janitors have also been caught in the characteristic bind of the new economy. Conditions of employment in California have grown increasingly tenuous as the new economy goes from strength to strength. According to Working Partnerships, a labour think-tank based in San Jose, 45 per cent of Californians now have no more than two years' tenure in their current jobs, and temporary employment agencies between 1993 and 1998 expanded by 182,900 people--more than the net job growth in the software and electronic industries combined. The trend toward outsourcing, as businesses pare down extraneous employees to concentrate on their core business, has been felt throughout the workforce.

Fourteen years earlier, workers like Mendoza would have been in-house employees earning as much as $14 an hour at such firms as Hewlett Packard. But in the economic slump of the early 1990s, the high-tech firms reaped a bonus, spinning off janitorial work, along with such services as landscaping and security, to competing independent contractors and substantially bringing down the cost of janitors' labour, to around $8 an hour. …

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