Until a few weeks ago, janitors at the Union Bank of California in downtown Portland say they had decent wages and healthcare they could count on.
Then ServiceMaster Swan Island stepped into the picture.
Janitors at Union Bank say that, after buying the assets of another ServiceMaster franchise, the north Portland company told workers their union days were over.
"We've had a union here for 14 years and it just doesn't seem right for them to come in and take away our union and all our hard-earned benefits," says Eric Butler, a janitor at Union Bank and a former member of Service Employees International Union Local 49, which represents more than 6,500 private-sector property service and healthcare workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, including 2,000 janitors who clean offices and publicly-owned buildings throughout the Portland metro area.
Alice Dale, president of SEIU Local 49, says that, "as wealth in downtown Portland is growing through new development, companies like ServiceMaster (Swan Island) are now actively lowering standards for janitors and their families in downtown Portland."
A History of Conflict
The North Portland ServiceMaster franchise has operated locally since 1993 and has contracts with some of the more prominent buildings in Portland, including the Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Garden Arena.
The franchise has been under fire from labor organizers before.
In 2005, janitors from the Rose Garden Arena and Memorial Coliseum filed a class action suit against the company, alleging that ServiceMaster Swan Island forced them to work "off the clock" and then didn't reimburse them.
That same year, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against the local company, citing proven cases of threats made against employees.
ServiceMaster Swan Island settled the local class action suit in July 2006, and agreed to pay $84,000 in lost wages.
"ServiceMaster Swan Island janitors are now bravely speaking out to improve their wages and working conditions," Dale says. "They are asking for a fair process to form a union."
The company's vice president and general manager, Samuel Okafor, said he could not comment on the case, under the advisement of his company's attorney, Rick VanCleave, but VanCleave said ServiceMaster Swan Island could not legally uphold the union contracts of Union Bank janitors.
"ServiceMaster Swan Island is not party to the collective bargaining agreements (the janitors at Union Bank made with the other franchise owners)," VanCleave said.
He added that, to his knowledge, ServiceMaster Swan Island has retained most of the Union Bank janitors and has agreed to pay them the same wages they made under their former employer. He said full-time workers do have healthcare benefits, but did not know if ServiceMaster Swan Island had changed the Union Bank janitors' shifts to part-time hours.
VanCleave said that, for the janitors at Union Bank of California to organize again, they would need to garner the support of more than 51 percent of the janitors employed with ServiceMaster Swan Island.
Janitors March in Downtown Portland
The dispute came to a head on Wednesday, Jan. 31, when a few dozen janitors marched in front of Union Bank, at the corner of Southwest Washington and Broadway avenues in downtown Portland. Their signs demanded fair wages and healthcare benefits.
"When they told us they were eliminating our healthcare benefits and our pension, I couldn't believe it," Butler says. "With the old company, I knew I could count on health insurance and regular wage increases."
Some janitors at Union Bank have heard stories from employees at other ServiceMaster Swan Island-contracted buildings.
Christina Salgado is one such employee.
A single mother of a 5-year-old boy, Salgado lives off of the $400 a month she earns after taxes and childcare expenses as a janitor at the Rose Garden Arena, which contracts with ServiceMaster. She says her work schedule as non-union employee is difficult. Sometimes, Salgado says, ServiceMaster calls her in the afternoon to work a one-and-one-half hour shift at the Rose Garden Arena. She says she wishes she had a set schedule and benefits.
"There is no union at the Rose Gardens but I wish there were," Salgado says. "That way we might make better wages and have health insurance in the future."
SEIU Local 49 has been trying to unionize ServiceMaster Swan Island janitors for years, says Ken Spray, a local labor organizer.
"(ServiceMaster) took away their union, they took away their healthcare benefits," Spray said, as he walked the picket line with Union Bank janitors. "We're just trying to help."