Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

As a janitor and union member, Dolores Martinez marched her way to a pay raise. Along with thousands of members of L.A.’s cleaning crews, she helped earn a historic triumph for organized labor in April. During a three-week strike, janitors like Martinez forced 18 contract cleaning companies and some of America’s wealthiest building owners to give them up to a 70-cent hourly raise. Along the way the janitors garnered national public support as few labor movements have ever done in this city.

Ironically, during the past four weeks the janitors were pounded by another strike: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers’ strike. The walkout — which affected nearly a half-million passengers a day — was felt mostly by low-paid minority and immigrant workers. The strike tested janitors’ allegiance to the union movement. After all, last spring’s strike was for many their first experience with what a union can accomplish for the downtrodden. And, until the very end, most of the janitors who belong to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 supported the United Transportation Union’s bus strike, and some even participated in bus drivers’ rallies, Martinez said. But the janitors couldn’t help having mixed feelings, because at least half of them depend on buses to get to office buildings all over Los Angeles, she added.

“When we were on strike, our desperation was such that we wanted to paralyze the whole city to make them understand what we were going through,” Martinez said. Still, as the bus strike continued, she and her fellow janitors wished “that this horrible situation would end.”

Most janitors are undocumented immigrants and either cannot afford a car or cannot qualify for a driver’s license, SEIU president Mike Garcia said. Since the janitors’ strike, one of the union’s priorities has been to campaign for immigration amnesty for janitors.

Unlike some immigrant Latino bus users, who were at odds with striking bus drivers, the janitors felt a bond with the drivers’ effort to maintain current wages and benefits. But the transportation woes remained. “The first day of the strike I had to miss work. I had no way of getting there,” said Martinez, 36, who lives in Westlake and works in Westwood. “Since then, a co-worker bought a car and I have been riding with him. If it were not for him, I would not be able to make it to work.”

Most janitors either car-pooled or took cabs to their jobs. The SEIU asked the contract companies to grant the janitors some leeway during the bus strike, but many janitors complained that their supervisors refused to do so. “They [the supervisors] tell us that ‘It’s up to you to figure it out. It’s your problem. You have to be here on time,’” said Martinez, who is an immigrant from Mexico. “Since they never use the bus, they don’t understand this situation.”

The janitors had to rely on each other for help during the bus strike, explained Martinez, who has worked as a janitor for the last eight years. The co-worker who bought the car (and learned to drive it while shuttling to and from work) has been a lifesaver for many janitors. “Along the way, we pick up janitors who have no other means of getting to work,” Martinez said. “We end up riding on top of each other.”

Almost 60 percent of the janitors are women, and many are single mothers or have husbands who earn similar wages, Garcia said. Often, the women janitors face daily troubles riding night buses and walking through dark, high-crime areas.

The bus strike only increased their problems, said Leticia Hernandez, a 28-year-old janitor from South-Central who has cleaned offices for three years. With the strike over, she can return to her routine of taking two buses to the Westwood high rise where she cleans six floors; during the strike, she relied on her father to take her to work and to pick her up. “My father hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since the strike,” Hernandez said. “He works as a garment cutter. It’s a tough job as it is, but with little sleep it makes it worse.”

The janitors who depended on MTA buses found out during the strike — like the rest of the bus users in Los Angeles — that the cost of their transportation increased. Car-pooling janitors pitched in as much as $30 a week just to get to and from work.

On weekends, some janitors ended up paying up to $12 for a ride to the supermarket for groceries, said Daniel Marquez, a 45-year-old janitor from Nicaragua. The transportation fees quickly put a strain on janitors like Marquez, who makes $6.80 per hour cleaning the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Marquez and 15 other janitors paid four of their car-owning colleagues $20 a week to get them to work and back. Marquez walked seven blocks every day from his home in Echo Park to a co-worker’s home, where they drove and picked up other janitors along the way.

The bus strike was especially hard on janitors who work in “Area 2,” where a 40-cent pay increase that was won during the spring strike goes into effect later this month. Area 2 janitors like Hernandez and Marquez make an average of $6.80 per hour. On the other hand, some Area 1 janitors who work in downtown and Century City make over $8 per hour.

For Martinez, the bus strike drained her of any extra money. She still had to pick up her son from school and attend union meetings, which ended up costing her much more than when the buses were rolling. Still, she remained loyal to the bus drivers and said the strike should end “only after the bus drivers get what they are fighting for.”

Buoyed by the success of their strike, the janitors take pride in their Local 1877. Being ignored by the tenants or office workers where they work still hurts, but having stood up to their bosses when it was needed has done the janitors some good.

“I have eight years as a janitor, and not one tenant has ever said ‘Merry Christmas’ to me,” Martinez said. “I don’t think this year will be any different, but being in the union and working to improve things for my co-workers makes me happy.”

LA Weekly