Ten years ago, 17-year-old Alvaro Reyes crouched into a dank Tijuana water tunnel. Moments later, he emerged on California soil and quickly disappeared into the night eluding the U.S. Border Patrol.
A decade later, the Mexico Cityborn Reyes is a janitor and still does his best work during the night. Like thousands of others who belong to the Service Employees International Justice for Janitors Union (SEIU), he is in his third week of a strike against 18 contracting companies responsible for cleaning 70 percent of the high-rise buildings in Los Angeles.
Reyes, 27, now stands guard outside buildings like the one he had been cleaning for the last 10 years. It is his job to try to keep strikebreakers from getting inside downtown high-rises and doing the job he used to do for ABM, one of the contract companies. The scabs are a huge threat to the success of the strike.
SEIU spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said it is unclear how many strikebreakers are getting in to clean the high-rises. She said most of the work being done by scabs is in downtown buildings like the California Plaza.
Some of the contracting companies have been running help-wanted ads in Spanish-language media. The pay according to the ads is similar to what the union janitors were receiving.
As Reyes talks of how the third week of the strike is starting to worry him, his cell phone rings to alert him about a strikebreaker. Yes. Im on my way. Dont let Ernesto in!
Reyes rushes from Olive Street uphill to Fourth Street and turns right toward the parking entrance of the high-rise. He is too late. Ernesto, the renegade janitor who has been a scourge for Reyes and about half a dozen of his union co-workers for the last three weeks, has somehow managed to evade them again.
Reyes puts on a jacket over his red strike T-shirt to stay warm during the cold, windy night. Now that workers like him are finally being noticed by the rest of the city, now that they are being acknowledged as human beings, Reyes fears the strikebreakers could ruin it all for everybody.
The SEIU janitors make an average wage of $6.80 to $7.80 per hour. They are demanding a $1-per-hour raise for each of the next three years from the 18 contract companies that employ them. We are not against them [the strikebreakers]. We are just defending our jobs, said Reyes, who makes an hourly $7.90. We understand ä that they have necessities like us, but we have our way of thinking and they have theirs.
To prevent strikebreakers from getting into the buildings, union janitors form human shields and stand in front of incoming cars. Though the tactic has had some success, it led to incidents in which ABM downtown janitorial supervisors injured three strikers with their cars during the first week of the strike, Gallegos said. The injured janitors filed a lawsuit against ABM last week.
The janitors may not be vacuuming floors or cleaning restrooms, but the strike means hard work and little sleep for them. Like most janitors, Reyes averages about four to five hours of sleep a night when hes working. During the strike, hes sleeping even less.
During the day, Reyes sometimes works as a valet-parking attendant from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a downtown hotel. From there he drives to the California Plaza building, at Olive and Fourth streets, where he used to work from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. He now stands guard all night until its time for him to go back to parking cars.
I havent seen my family these last days, said Reyes, who later that night slept in his van, parked a few blocks away. But I know its the sacrifice we have to do to make life better for all of us.
For Reyes, his wife and their four children, a better life means having the health care they were getting up until the strike. A wage increase would also make it easier to pay the $800 rent on their house in Los Angeles.
Standing with Reyes on the strike line is his friend and co-worker Jose Serapio. The 30-year-old father of one arrived in Los Angeles the same year that Reyes did and under similar circumstances. They are both from the outskirts of Mexico City.
Reyes and Serapio met while working for ABM at California Plaza. They both managed to find part-time work in the same valet-parking company.
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Like sentries, Serapio and Reyes take turns guarding different entrances to the building. If they see a known strikebreaker they can recognize their cars and faces they will try to block their vehicles with their bodies.
Sometimes the union janitors succeed in keeping them out. But former union members such as Ernesto have often devised ways to get around them.
Tired, sleepy and rain-soaked, Reyes said Monday that the janitors will keep guarding their buildings. He insists that he sympathizes with the needs of the strikebreakers, but that they should be on the unions side instead.
Ernesto used to be with us. He was even a member of the union, but he chose not to go on strike, Reyes said. This time he got in. But we wont let that happen again.