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Janitors Beat Back Academic Goosestep

by Susan Davis

In this ritzy suburb of San Diego, fifty janitors fighting for union representation have overcomestiff opposition, not only from their subcontractor employer, but also from the highest levels ofacademe. These men and women who clean offices, classrooms and bathrooms at the University ofCalifornia, San Diego have been fired, abused, spied on and threatened with investigation by theImmigration and Naturalization Service, an illegal labor practice, simply for trying to hold a unionelection.

And they’ve emerged victorious.

It all started with Alejandra Rodriguez, hired by Bergenson’s Property Services to work as acustodian for $6.25 an hour. Everyone liked Alejandra Rodriguez, and by all accounts she did finework; the problems came up when Bergenson’s spies found out she was attending organizingmeetings. On April 25 of this year, at a “captive audience” session designed to deflect the drive bythe Service Employees International Union Local 2028, Alejandra Rodriguez spoke out aboutsafety and working conditions. She was fired by Bergenson the next day in a humiliating scene.After she was yelled at and her check thrown at her in front of staff and faculty, she was led awayby campus police.

All janitors at UCSD were university employees until the big privatization wave of the 1990s.When the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees organized the janitors in1995, UCSD started dealing with non-union subcontractors to trim costs. About one hundredcustodians work for between $11.00- $12.00 hourly under an AFSCME contract, while nearly asmany are supplied by firms like Bergenson’s, a low paid, over-worked, benefits-free second tier ofpeople who do the identical tasks.

Alejandra Rodriguez worked a second eight-hour shift to keep her family going, as do some UCSDsecretaries. And this two-tiered structure is just like the faculty, come to think of it, among whom”adjunct” (non-tenurable, temporary) teachers work much harder than the tenure-track professors,for much worse pay and, often, no benefits.

Victorious inside the city limits last year, the SEIU has been running a vigorous Living Wage andJustice for Janitors campaign in the sprawling suburbs where so many office buildings – and severalUniversities – are located. But it’s tough in such an anti-union town. City fathers nearly lynchedAlexander Reitman and the Wobbly free-speechers in 1912 and it’s been hostile territory for laborrights ever since.

What happened to Alejandra Rodriguez? Rodriguez galvanized the Justice for Janitors campaign oncampus, and especially the group Students for Economic Justice. They were well aware that hercomplaint against Bergenson’s was only the latest of many at UCSD: the company is notorious forabusing its workers. These activists demanded to speak with Chancellor Robert Dynes (boss of allthe bosses) about her treatment. They wrote, they phoned, they collected 900 signatures on apetition- and never got so much as a return phone call.

So when they heard that Dynes was holding a gathering of his Chancellor’s Associates (wealthydonors) they decided to see if they could catch up with him there. The May 22 meeting was held inan outdoor hospitality tent, and at first the activists were told to go home: Dynes was not there andwouldn’t be for an hour. When they persisted, Lo!, Dynes walked out of the tent and said thatwhile he knew nothing about Alejandra Rodriguez or a union organizing drive, he’d get a vicechancellor “right on it”. Since they’d already been stalled for three weeks, the students linkedarms and tried to march peacefully into the tent to press their demands for, at least, a meeting. Atthis point, Edgar Gillenwaters, the Senior Director for External Affairs (translation: ContinuingCultivation of the Filthy Rich), was unleashed on the undergrads. According to the students Gillenwaters and campus security guards shoved four of them into atable of drinks, sending broken glass and hot hors d’oeuvres flying. Gillenwaters elbowed a studentin the mouth. Organizer Alex Tom says, “This guy is built like a linebacker. We couldn’t believehow he was acting”. Blood flowed. One young woman was nearly crushed against a tent pole. Josh Wilson jumped on the open stage and attempted to make the SEJ case: Gillenwaters grabbedhis belt and violently heaved him off. Alex Tom was trying to videotape the events, but two menwrapped him up in a tent panel, burrito-style, and tossed him out onto the lawn.

The Chancellor’s Associates went back to their mansions, deeply shaken. A week later, thisCounterPuncher hiked her 135-lb frame into Gillenwaters’s office to see if he was really all thathuge, but he was “not in.” Big Edgar has refused to return my repeated requests for an interview.

The UCSD administration claims to be neutral in the janitors’ fight, but this strains credulity, giventheir fifteen years of fierce resistance to teaching assistant unionization. (They were finally bestedby the UAW last year.) They must have been embarrassed in front of their primo check writers.Several times this spring, they had to watch crowds of nearly 500 students joining the janitors onthe campus plazas, holding banners and cheering to the strains of Latino hip-hop. On June 1,administrators made themselves scarce as hundreds of protestors blocked La Jolla’s glacial traffic,and two janitors and thirteen students were arrested. Nervous now, the administrators went astep further.

After the June 1 arrests, they announced that a “whistle blower” had suggested that not all thejanitors were legal. They would ask the INS to check. The Union-Tribune published this story onJune 2, and it was a bombshell. After heated and public denials by Robert Dynes, his underlingswere forced to confirm that they’d indeed called Immigration. Bergenson’s Property Services hadconvinced someone high up in the administration to drop a dime on the janitors. To understand what a threat this is, you have to understand the workings of the Clinton eraImmigration Reform and Control Act. People who’ve been in the States for decades have beensummarily deported, their families broken up, with no recourse or appeal. Others have beenincarcerated at Fresno for years without hearings. Citizens, including teen-agers, who look illegal(e.g. speak Spanish only) have been picked up by the INS and dropped off in Tijuana. Papers orno, Mexican and Mexican-American employees quite reasonably see a call to the migra as heavyintimidation.

The INS’ job, of course, has always been to help employers keep workers unorganized. But theINS said they wouldn’t touch this one with a ten-foot pole. It’s illegal for them to intervene in anorganizing drive. So UCSD conducted an “internal audit” of citizenship papers. According toVice Chancellor Stephen Relyea, UCSD felt the need to “exercise due diligence” just now, eventhough Bergenson’s has worked with UCSD for years.

UCSD acted as Bergenson’s catspaw. Why? That takes us back to Bob Dynes. Married into anenormously rich family of San Francisco investment bankers, he’s also made a pile frominvestments in Qualcomm and other San Diego high-tech firms; he’s tight buddies with real-estatespeculators and the owner of the Padres. Dynes was brought in from Bell Labs specifically to helpcorporatize UCSD, to align its research and teaching more closely with the needs of the high-tech,bio-tech boom on the Mexico-US border.

In exactly the way described by Upton Sinclair in his 1923 classic, The Goosestep: A Study inHigher Education, the Chancellor sees the public university as sharing the political and economicinterests of the rest of San Diego’s business-military posse. Recently he made a publicpronouncement that the UCSD faculty should not produce “knowledge for its own sake” butpractical and useful knowledge. When asked by a prominent historian of science what practicalproject Newton was working on when he theorized gravity, the physicist Dynes called his lawyerbefore answering.

Given his self-perception as CEO of one of the city’s biggest businesses, Dynes can’t allowunionization. Except now he has to. On June 14, the University was forced to agree to terminateBergenson’s contract and bring all Bergenson’s janitors in under AFSCME, thus doubling theircompensation and giving them insurance, vacations and pension benefits. Alejandra Rodriguezwill have her job back, and the workers will continue to press their unfair practices complaints.Mike Wilzoch, who ran the campaign for SEIU Local 2028, calls it an unqualified victory. Theworkers were tough and brave, the students disciplined and tireless, the faculty helpful, and theChicano Federation and interfaith coalitions just wouldn’t drop the issue. And then there wasEdgar Gillenwaters, and that dumb, dumb, call to the INS. It’s a big win for labor in a county where wins have been few and far between. CounterPunchmoral of the story: never overestimate the intelligence of the opposition. CP

Susan Davis teaches at UC San Diego.

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