Posted on May 9, 2011

Justice for Janitors Campaigners Record Their Stories

Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2011

Rosa Ayala has been arrested seven times, endured three hunger strikes and marched in so many protests, she long ago lost track.

As the 67-year-old janitor was interviewed for an oral history project on Saturday, she sat proudly in a chair dressed from head to toe in her union’s symbolic red and told her story.


Ayala joined more than 60 other janitors in a project organized by UCLA to record the history of the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, launched in 1987. The university has spent more than eight months tracking down photographs, news clippings, posters and, most significantly, oral testimonies.

In more than two decades, the union has won higher wages, health insurance, vacation and sick pay for its members. It also has organized campaigns for immigration reform and better healthcare.


The janitors’ story took a pivotal turn in 1990 in Century City when police attempted to drive back protesters with clubs. Forty people were arrested and 16 injured.

That day Rina Valenzuela, 58, escaped the chaos and hid on the second floor of an office building. From there, she saw a co-worker named Ramon, a nice man who often helped her vacuum, beaten by police.


As janitors streamed into the union’s reception hall in South L.A., many wore their famous red T-shirts, the ones that became so popular in the 1990s that knockoffs were sold in the downtown fashion district.

Most of the workers interviewed had been janitors for one or two decades, in some cases three. Many were immigrants who came from impoverished countries, sometimes ravaged by war or political strife. That turmoil favored the union because many members were familiar with protests and sacrifice, said the union’s janitorial division president, Mike Garcia.

The janitors “led the first successful union movement among immigrant workers,” he [Mike Garcia, the union’s janitorial division president] said.

the union’s janitorial division president, Mike Garcia

Garcia’s interview and others will be posted online. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a labor studies professor who launched the project, said he hopes people will hear the histories and understand how widespread the janitors’ reach has been.