Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

It’s 3:30 a.m. Dolores Martinez exits the bus that took her from her Westwood job to her neighborhood in Westlake. She hurriedly walks the four dimly lit blocks to her home while street hustlers look on. She has performed the same risky ritual for the last eight years.

Martinez, a 35-year-old mother of two, would like to drive home, but the $6.80-per-hour salary she makes as a janitor isn’t enough to afford a car, she said. For most of the last decade, the Martinezes went without health insurance or other benefits common in most other jobs.

Far from being alone, Martinez and more than 4,000 other women janitors are hoping that their “Justice for Janitors” Service Employees International Union Local 1877 can get them a contract with heftier pay from a group of 18 cleaning companies that mostly service Westwood’s Wilshire corridor.

The union wants at least a $1-per-hour increase for all of its 8,500 janitors, spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said. The janitors’ contract ends on March 31. Representatives of the 18 cleaning companies did not return L.A. Weekly phone calls to comment on the contract negotiations.

Most of the janitors who work in the county’s high-rise buildings went without health-care and other work-related benefits before the union got a contract for them last January, said Mike Garcia, the union president. Salaries for janitors began to spiral downward during the 1980s due to the advent of independent cleaning companies that tend to pay workers low wages without benefits.

The low wages and lack of benefits have been especially tough on women, who make up about 50 percent of the janitors who work in Los Angeles, Gallegos said. Most are immigrant women who can’t afford child support and have to rely on family or neighbors for help. Many are single mothers who have to take a second job to support their households.

“I work very hard, but my family still has to give up on many things to be able to survive on low wages,” said Sandra Barrios, a janitor who works in the downtown area. “It is not right that in this country, with such a good economy, people who work hard have to live in poverty.”

Janitors are looking to a new contract to help get them out of the poverty level, Gallegos said. Most of the janitors who work within the county of Los Angeles earn an average of $15,000 per year.

Union leaders don’t foresee a contract by the March 31 deadline, Garcia said. Preparations are under way for a countywide strike on April 3.

Shunned in the past for lack of voting power, union janitors have recently been noticed by local elected politicians, Garcia said. Many of the workers have become citizens and active voters. Even those who are not yet citizens help register voters and join union leaders during rallies.

Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D–Los Angeles) didn’t mind being arrested with 33 union members and janitors last Wednesday during a rally in Westwood that drew a crowd of about 1,500. The protesters were arrested for failing to disperse during a street demonstration that clogged the busy intersection of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards.

Last November, state Senator Hilda Solis held state hearings, which focused on phony cleaning companies that pay janitors with personal checks and fail to pay overtime wages. The hearings found the wholehearted support of the union. (In this month’s primary, Solis beat incumbent Marty Martinez in his Eastside congressional district thanks in large measure to union support.)

Tired from scrubbing floors and toiling in lonely office buildings from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. five days per week, Dolores Martinez pushes herself during the day to make union meetings and finds time to meet with other janitors to discuss labor issues, she said. But the bottom line for the Mexico City native is her family.

Martinez’s voice quivered as she talked about the little time she has spent with her family during her last eight years working as a janitor. Though she believes that what she has done has been necessary, she has mixed feelings about not seeing enough of her 10- and 18-year-old sons.

“That’s what hurts me the most, not having been able to be with them much,” Martinez said.

Her husband works as a temporary construction worker, Martinez said. His unstable work schedules provide barely enough to cover expenses. She believes that she has earned her right to make a more decent salary. “I only want to earn what is fair. The cleaning contractors and companies that we work for make a lot of money,” Martinez said. “I only want a little of what they have made out of my work.”

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