For Ana Maria Pantoja, it was the little things that got to her. It began with the feeling that she was being watched. Then there was the animosity from her supervisors, then the warnings that started to accumulate in her employment file. Next they changed her shift, gave her more work than she could manage and finally they told her to go home; they would call her when they needed her.
Pantoja worked as a janitor at Horton Plaza for three years and initially enjoyed the privileges that come with being a good employee. The five-days-a-week, 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift cleaning the mall's third and fifth floors was hers, and that gave her time to get her kids to and from the “6-to-6” program at their school.
But then a union organizer came around to let Pantoja know that, in comparison to other janitors around town, she and her Horton Plaza co-workers were getting short shrift. Problems with her main supervisor started as soon as she spotted Pantoja talking to union organizers. It seemed, to Pantoja, this was more than just coincidental.
“When [Horton Plaza] workers started to organize, her attitude changed completely,” said Pantoja of her supervisor. “She watched us when we had meetings.”
In September of last year, Pantoja was told to take some time off-that her supervisor needed to reorganize the work schedule. Next she was told that she couldn't pick up her paycheck until she turned in her uniform.
“I said, ‘Are you firing me?'” Pantoja recalled. She was told that Horton Plaza was overstaffed with janitors, though she later found out a new worker was hired to fill her former shift.
It's easy to exploit a needy, low-skilled workforce, and it appears that the company contracted to clean San Diego's shopping malls is doing just that. Numerous allegations of worker abuse and an ongoing investigation by the State Labor Commission into San Marcos-based Building One Service Solutions has not deterred the Westfield Group, owners of San Diego County's seven Westfield Malls, from relying exclusively on Building One to hire, oversee and compensate the people who clean those malls.
Service Employees International Union Local 2028 has had their eye on Building One for more than a year, since the company was first awarded the Westfield contract back in August 2001, and in the subsequent months SEIU has been documenting worker grievances and watching Building One's labor practices. However, the issue hit a sore spot recently when Australian multi-billionaire Frank Lowy, CEO of the Westfield Group-a $31.5 billion corporation that owns 104 shopping malls worldwide-gave away a year's salary, $11 million, to Australian charities. Of course, it's hard to grumble about so generous a move, but when his janitorial workforce is living far below the poverty line, some wonder why Lowy couldn't have shared the wealth with them.
“I suppose that was a nice thing to do,” said SEIU Local 2028 Deputy Director Mike Wilzoch of Lowy's giveaway, “but the people who are cleaning all his nice malls-they need a sick day, they need a holiday, they need basic stuff. But Westfield's position has been that it's not any of their business-‘We contract with [Building One]; we don't know anything about it.'”
No one from the Westfield Group nor Building One returned CityBeat's phone calls.
Thus far, SEIU has been forced to maintain an observer's stance on the issue. Building One is one of the few maintenance contractors in San Diego that forbids workers to join a union. So while Building One janitors are scraping by on $7 an hour with no health benefits, get no sick days and no paid holidays, union janitors in neighboring buildings are getting at least $1 more an hour with the promise of consistent raises, six sick days per year, 10 paid holidays and employer-sponsored health care. Then there's the other benefits you can't put a price on: structured grievance procedures, health and safety protection, job security and collective bargaining. Building One employees, it seems, get none of that.
The list of citations issued to Building One by the California State Labor Commission includes failure to provide rest periods, failure to provide itemized wage statements and failure to keep truthful, accurate and complete time records. Pending charges filed against Building One with the National Labor Relations Board include illegal worker interrogations by supervisors, threats to fire union supporters, illegal prohibiting of workers to talk to union organizers and bribing workers to denounce their union support, among other things.
Pantoja herself had an anecdote to illustrate Building One's drive to keep workers from seeking union support. At a recent SEIU rally in front of Horton Plaza, Pantoja spotted a good friend who was still employed there. Pantoja waved. “She ignored me,” said Pantoja. “She wouldn't make eye contact.” Later the woman told Pantoja that she feared supervisors were watching her.
Westfield initially argued, in a letter to Rabbi Laurie Coskey of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, that they went with Building One because the contractor “paid more than the minimum wage, [employees] received paid vacations, 401K benefits, stock procurement at a reduced cost and contributory health care benefits.”
Wilzoch said Building One employees were amused by this account of what they were supposed to be getting. “Maybe it's the supervisors and managers who are getting the benefits, but not the employees,” he said. Workers, in fact, said they had to pay 100 percent of health insurance and, Wilzoch noted, who needs a 401K plan and stock options when you can barely pay the bills?
Rabbi Coskey, who has been active in the national Justice for Janitors movement, said that she and members of the Interfaith Committee have tried repeatedly to talk to Westfield Management about issues with Building One. “Building One is not a responsible contractor,” she said. “We did 23 different delegations [to Westfield offices], some of them large. At those delegations we had anywhere from 60 people to 100 people of faith and clergy, everyone in clergy attire, and then we did small delegations, repeatedly going to the management offices at the different malls. We repeatedly tried to connect with them and engage them; we continued to ask them to hire a responsible contractor.”
However, a recent letter from Westfield Executive Vice President Gary Karl shows Westfield washing its hands of the matter. “Westfield has no employment relationship with the individuals whose statements you have obtained or with anyone employed by Building One,” Karl writes. Karl did offer, however, to allow SEIU representatives to meet with a group of Building One employees to discuss whether they'd want SEIU to represent them. The meeting could take place as long as Wilzoch gave a Westfield representative three days' notice. It was an offer Wilzoch and Coskey found amusing-organizers had been in constant contact with a large number of Building One employees for more than a year.
“We meet with employees anytime we want,” said Rabbi Coskey. “We don't need [Westfield's] blessing, nor do we need their space to meet.”
And, Coskey added, what's the chance that employees would even show up to the meeting. “The employees are frightened and intimidated,” she said.
“If [you] complain, they fire you. If you don't complain, you get taken advantage of,” Pantoja explained.
The lingering question, then, is why would workers opt to go with an employer such a Building One when other janitorial service contractors in San Diego offer better wages and benefits.
Malls are easily accessible to workers who must rely on public transportation, Pantoja explained. It's what made her job at Horton Plaza so ideal. Plus, most janitorial work takes place after hours whereas mall janitors work relatively normal hours, allowing families a more stable lifestyle. Pantoja said that if she was offered her job back, she'd go, but she'd be vocal about her support for the union.
Rabbi Coskey said she's still working to bridge the communication gap between Westfield and the workers. “I deeply believe that if anybody in the Westfield upper management would just sit and talk to the workers... these are people who clean their toilets, you know? These are people who wash their sinks, sweep behind the trash cans, all those things we hate to do,” she said. “And I think that if you talked to those folks and if you met their children and saw where they lived they would feel entirely different-if there was a face on the workers.”
“I hope that lots of good things happen from [Lowy's] generosity,” she added, “but I hope that some of that is turned inward to the people who really serve the company.”