UC San Diego Agrees to Hire Contract Janitors

Labor: The workers will get health benefits for the first time and higher wages. The action comes after months of unrest on campus.

By TONY PERRY, Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO--In another victory for the "justice for janitors" campaign, UC San Diego on Thursday agreed to hire campus janitors employed by a contractor that has strongly resisted their efforts to join a union. The move will nearly double the janitors' salaries and provide them, for the first time, with vacation, pension and health benefits.
"All of us are very happy," said janitor Ana Lopez. "I encourage all other workers to not be afraid of their bosses."
For months, the issue had sparked the kind of political upheaval not usually seen at the science-oriented campus: rallies, picketing, a protest petition by professors, civil disobedience that led to 15 arrests, and public criticism of Chancellor Robert C. Dynes.
Tensions escalated when one of Dynes' top aides, acting on a tip, called the Immigration and Naturalization Service to suggest that some of the janitors might be in the country illegally.
Calling the INS only broadened public support for the janitors in their fight with Bergenson Property Services and subjected Dynes and the university to criticism from various quarters. In the end, the campus decided to drop its contract with Bergenson.
"The workers were tough as nails, and the students were organized," said union organizer Mike Wilzoch. "Nobody thought it could be done in sleepy San Diego, but we did it."
Under an agreement reached between the university and the Service Employees International Union, the 50 janitors employed by Bergenson and working at the campus will be offered jobs as university employees. The school already has about 300 janitorial employees.
Upon joining the UC payroll, the janitors' wages will jump from $6.40 an hour to between $9 and $12 an hour. Each janitor will receive 12 paid holidays, paid vacation, pension benefits, and family health insurance. Bergenson offered five holidays but no vacation or health insurance, officials said.
"I was so worried about how I could care for my baby without insurance," said janitor Camarina Negrete, who is six months' pregnant. "Now I know I can get the best care for my child."
Alejandra Rodriguez, fired by Bergenson while attempting to persuade other janitors to join a labor union, will be among those offered a job. Rodriguez has a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board over her firing.
"We believe that this course of action is in the best interests of the university," the campus said in a statement. Bergenson officials did not comment.
As university employees, the janitors will be represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Fifteen students were arrested June 1 while blocking an intersection near the campus to gain attention for the janitors' unionization bid. Also, there was a confrontation on May 22 between an administrator and several pro-janitor students who were attempting to crash a gathering hosted by Dynes for major donors to UC San Diego.
The unexpected move by the administration came just two days after a protest letter was delivered to Dynes from 40 faculty members saying they were "troubled" that his administration had contacted the INS.
"Even if university representatives believed they were acting in good faith," the faculty letter said, "the involvement of the INS could only create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for the workers. University officials should have realized this."
Although it is common for universities to hire private custodial firms, the "justice for janitors" campaign has not become a widespread campus issue.
One labor organizer suggested that may be a reflection of the level of bitterness between Bergenson and its employees and also the fact that many campuses prefer to contract with unionized companies.