Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Before she donned a red T-shirt and took to the streets as a striking janitor, Rosa Sandoval had grown well familiar with Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh dolls — not as toys or keepsakes for her children, but as objects to be dusted in a Disney-run, 32-story high-rise in Burbank. But for her, at $6.40 an hour, this was not the happiest executive-office suite on Earth.

And now, it’s no longer the cleanest, given that Sandoval has put down her mop and pail for a picket sign. During nights, instead of cleaning toilets and sweeping floors, she has stood guard outside this same office building, barring the entrance to would-be strikebreakers. And during the days, she has marched along with about 3,000 other members of the Justice for Janitors campaign.

It has been a backbreaking day/night regimen, but then, that’s the sort of grueling routine to which she’s become accustomed.

A typical workday for the 35-year-old Sandoval goes like this: She takes the bus from her home in Koreatown to Burbank, then toils from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. After that, she pays a co-worker the equivalent of a bus fare for a ride home. She goes to bed by about 3 a.m., only to get up at 6 to attend to her husband and three children before they’re off to work and school.

A small woman with a long, black mane that cascades over her back, Sandoval was a homemaker before she arrived from Guatemala with her husband six years ago. Like many traditional Latin American women, Sandoval had never worked outside of the home before obtaining employment four years ago with One Source, a janitorial service that contracts with building owners.

She pursued custodial work — as did her husband, Walter — to make ends meet. Walter’s shift in a Compton building runs from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. With any luck he’ll be back by 5 at their apartment at Mariposa and Wilshire to see his wife briefly before she leaves for work. He gets paid $6 per hour.

Between husband and wife, the Sandovals make less than $26,000 a year. And then you have to deduct transportation costs and the $150 she pays every week for child care. You don’t get high-end child care for three children — ages 11, 10 and 2 — at $150 a week. But fortunately, she says, a responsible friend in a neighboring apartment watches her children, along with a number of other neighborhood kids. Even these modest employment costs leave her little cash to show for her labors.

Because of the family’s small income, the children’s medical expenses are mostly covered by Medi-Cal, Sandoval says. But she and her husband rely on good health and good luck; they can afford no health insurance for themselves.

Despite the hardships, Sandoval says that life is better in Los Angeles than back in her hometown of Jutiapa. Here, at least, her husband can afford a car, a mid-1980s Toyota sedan, in which he takes the family out on weekends.

But Sandoval is not resigned to economic injustice — even if her poverty is less desperate than it was before. “I think that for what we do,” she says, “we deserve a more fair pay.”

As Sandoval spoke these words, she showed that she’s willing to sacrifice her feet as well as her paycheck in what has become Los Angeles’ biggest janitors’ strike in more than 20 years. She walked all 12 miles of a Friday march from downtown to Century City in low-heeled, bargain-basement Western boots. Three days later, she participated in a demonstration downtown at which Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrated a solidarity Mass.

On Friday, as the march advanced along Wilshire Boulevard, Sandoval pushed an umbrella stroller where her 2-year-old daughter, Enma, sat eyeing hundreds of legs carrying people with red T-shirts. Other couples led their older children on foot through the blister-raising procession as they chanted “No nos moveran!” or “They will not move us!”

About 55 percent of janitors belonging to the Service Employees International Union are women. Some are single or divorced and face an even harder struggle than Sandoval. Nearly all are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, earning an hourly rate of $6.80 to $7.80.

Los Angeles union janitors earn far less than cleaning-crew members in other major U.S. cities such as San Francisco and New York. But nonunion janitors here do even worse, commonly being paid at minimum-wage levels. Almost no local janitors pocket enough to escape the poverty-income level, but this poverty does not equate with weakness, in the view of Sandoval, who looks at their strength in numbers and at their will.

This determination is embodied in fellow striker Juan Cerna Moreno, a 40-year-old Mexican immigrant from Cuernavaca, Morelos. Cerna was an elementary school teacher in Mexico — a near-minimum-wage job — before coming to Los Angeles 13 years ago.

Cerna’s day job is as a cook — he first learned the skill in cooking classes back home. He boasts of having worked as a head cook in French, Spanish, Cantonese and Mexican restaurants. Currently, he dishes pasta in an Italian Playa del Rey restaurant from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. From there he rushes to a downtown high-rise, where, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., he vacuums, mops, and cleans bathrooms and desks for $5.75 an hour on three floors for ABM, one of the 18 companies targeted by strikers.

Cerna is home and in bed in his Pico-Union apartment by 3 a.m., then up again at 6. He somehow supports himself, while also sending money every month to his elderly parents in Mexico. He says the secret to his stamina is healthy foods and the right mix of vitamins. But a decent paycheck would be more welcome than a megadose of vitamin C. “I don’t feel bad for working in what is seen as the lowliest of work,” Cerna said as he marched through Beverly Hills. “But we all have a right to make ourselves better, to be treated better.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly