The Rise of Empire | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

The Rise of Empire 

The DWP has hired private eyes to follow janitors who complain about shoddy cleaning supplies — and a $25 million monopoly contract

Thursday, Nov 4 2004

Sandra Miranda remembers the little warehouse on Lamar Street, near the San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles. Empire Cleaning Supply started there as a mom-and-pop operation that sold floor stripper and mops and the like to the city since the Great Depression. As a custodian at the Department of Water and Power since 1985, Miranda was familiar with Empire. To Miranda, and others who cleaned for a living, Empire products were nothing special and maybe even less than average.

One day, however, after ownership passed to Jerry Elkind and Robert Cronyn, aspiring businessmen and relatives of the company’s founders, Empire landed a multimillion-dollar contract with the city. Soon the DWP became one of Empire’s biggest clients. Then the Airport Authority, and the Harbor Authority. Cronyn and Elkind became a small-business success story. “We were just a couple of guys selling brooms and mops,” Elkind says. These days, Elkind personally handles the city accounts, having won the lucrative contract during an unusual second round of bidding.

Miranda and her staff soon found it troubling to be supplied with caustic solvents, no-name garbage bags that fell apart in their hands, $2 bottles of glass cleaner they could find at Big Lots for a buck, and random cleaning agents such as Our Brand and Diamond Brite — products made by obscure companies in the Empire supply chain. Miranda found that in spite of generic packaging and noxious smells, such products were marked up, then offered at a “discount,” but were still more expensive than other available brands. And why, she asked, should she buy a $470 vacuum cleaner from Empire that didn’t meet health and safety requirements when she could buy a better one for $350 elsewhere? She did not like what Empire was selling.

Trouble really began, however, when Miranda and eight other custodians voiced preference for ordering supplies from companies they felt were more reliable than Empire, despite its sole-source contract with the city, even after a mandate that they buy exclusively from Empire. Since then, Miranda and her colleagues can barely remember what it was like to come to work each day and simply worry about cleaning 7 million square feet of city property. Instead, they worry about being interrogated by their bosses and followed and videotaped by private investigators — tactics that have harassed and intimidated dozens of workers and led to the threatened firing of five custodians and suspension of two others.

“How can we work under these conditions?” Miranda says. First the DWP cut back on staff and asked custodians to double their efforts, she says. Then managers started looking for reasons to discipline the remaining employees, apparently to force more staff reductions. Miranda had fought against the DWP’s efforts to outsource labor in 2001. Resisting an exclusive contract with Empire gave management a new excuse to punish them — this time for allegedly abusing their purchasing authority — and to suggest they were being too cozy with small vendors, she says. As a result, custodians are looking over their shoulders, breaking out in hives, going on stress leave and taking medication, Miranda says. Some are intimidated. Others are devastated. Miranda is demanding that city officials review the Empire contract and investigate treatment of the DWP’s custodians. “If they think we are taking [gratuities], that is ludicrous,” Miranda says. “This is based on power and greed.”

Miranda led 30 custodians and small vendors of cleaning supplies to City Hall on October 26 for the fourth time in three months to protest the Empire contract. The mega-contract, as it is called, is part of a citywide effort to streamline purchasing that began in 2000 following a private accounting study. The city claims it has saved millions and cut warehouse staff by consolidating supply contracts, but what it has really accomplished has been to shift responsibility for dealing with supply vendors to mega-contract holders like Empire.

Now, minority vendors say Empire has cut them out of the loop or offered them terms they cannot afford. Meanwhile, custodians and the DWP’s storekeepers — supply agents for what functions like a company store — say Empire is selling low-quality goods at above-market prices, and that the DWP managers are retaliating against employees and minority vendors who complain. “No one is listening to us,” Miranda says. “We know our jobs. We know what it takes to do them. When we speak up, we get treated like criminals.”

The controversy surrounding the Empire contract comes amid the so-called pay-to-play allegations in City Hall, and is just the latest in a series of employee-relations issues roiling at the DWP. Enrique Martinez, the Department of Water and Power’s acting general manager, says the DWP hasn’t thrived for 100 years by wasting public money and retaliating against its own workers. He insists that the recent firing of five custodial supervisors was for reasons such as “failure to follow orders, violations of working rules and inconsistencies in job performance.” Martinez responds to allegations of retaliation against custodians for their protest by saying, “There is always rumor and innuendo.” He answers questions about whether the recent surveillance and summary discharge of numerous employees are in proportion to their alleged job violations by saying, “We don’t comment on specific cases.”

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