Janitors Descend From Skyscrapers to Protest Immigration Raids
At 9 p.m. on Monday night, long after the white-collar workers that make the Financial District hum had gone home, the janitors started to trickle out of the skyscrapers into the dark plaza in front of 101 California.
It was like sighting a secret society, a gathering of workers whose job lends oneself to invisibility. They come in after you've left work and head out before you arrive, leaving no trace that they, or yesterday's grime, were ever there.
They were almost exclusively Latino. And they were joining in the plaza because the federal government is about to find who is in the country illegally.
The Department of Homeland Security notified ABM Industries, one of the three largest employers of janitors in the city, that it will be verifying the Employment Eligibility Verification forms of the company's 1,000 employees in San Francisco, according to Ashsa Safai, political director for SEIU Local 87 janitor's union. In its internal review of employees' documents, the company found 475 employees with incomplete or incorrect information on the forms. The employees had to turn in clarifications yesterday, and ABM must submit all the paperwork to the feds Wednesday.
If the workers are found to lack proper documentation, it's just a matter of time before they lose their jobs.
"You're really just shifting people around in the economy," says Safai. "They'll have other people come in and replace them and those 400 [who are fired] will go look for jobs elsewhere."
The janitors had gotten a call just that day from supervisors that Able Janitorial Services, Metro Maintenance, and ABM were letting them off work for an hour for a union event. Arriving at the plaza, they grabbed union-provided pastries and poured coffee into a styrofoam cups, then stood around chatting in an unexpected break from their nightly routine. "They told us to come but I don't know for what," said one older Spanish-speaking woman who says she's cleaned 525 Market for 11 years.
The crowd lit white candles and slapped on "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now" stickers that they would have to present in order to return to work. Local 87 President Olga Miranda announced that ABM had promised not to not fire one worker or hire another before they get a letter from the feds. ABM has been audited in what opponents call "desk-top raids" in at least two other cities.
"You fought for this job," Miranda said in Spanish and in English into a microphone powered by a rumbling Honda generator. "You've had this job for 15 years. You've had these benefits for 20 years, and we can't permit them to come take our jobs because of some miserable social security number." The crowd chanted "You hurt one, you hurt everyone!" in Spanish.
The union doesn't check immigration status among its members. One foreman who wished to remain anonymous says that illegal workers often are stepped on by the companies' management. "In the companies, when they know you don't have papers, they give you more time and don't pay overtime."
The vigil was held to show solidarity, but some janitors openly recognized the futility. "We can't fight immigration," one man said. "Some people are not legal here."
Before 10 p.m., the janitors blew out their candles -- though a few folks left theirs burning beside a fountain in the plaza. In groups and alone, they walked away toward their respective buildings, and went back to work.
Photos | Lauren Smiley, Francisco Barradas