Unionized janitors have persuaded many of their employers to clean up their acts for the new millennium and start providing health coverage.

Officials of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, a.k.a. Justice for Janitors, say almost 5,000 members and about 20,000 dependents will receive full family coverage under new contracts kicking in on January 1. Janitors in many buildings in Century City and the downtown core have had family coverage under contracts negotiated in 1995. Most of those just brought under the umbrella work in Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley, the South Bay or Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena.

Janitors at about 30 percent of L.A.‘s office complexes are still outside the safety net. On Monday, union officials launched a week of action to press commercial real estate owners to deal only with unionized janitorial firms. Public officials joined unionists at a Brentwood press conference to express their dismay that building owners who fail to do so end up shifting the burden of health care to the public. “Irresponsible employers are putting a strain on the health system,” said county Supervisor Gloria Molina. “And we pay the price as taxpayers for the needs of the working poor.” Two out of five east San Fernando Valley residents are uninsured, added Richard Alarcon, the area’s state senator, and are forced to rely on public-supported institutions for health care.

One of the janitors fortunate enough to have health insurance is Daisy Cabrera, whose 16-month-old son has had recurrent bouts of bronchitis this year. Cabrera, who spends her nights keeping Paramount studios shipshape, always gives his hacking a few days to clear up on its own before seeking care, but still had to take Marvin to a clinic three times at $150 per visit. Her two older sons faced no serious illnesses this year, but both needed eye tests and glasses, and 7-year-old Jose was treated several times for allergic skin rashes.

On Cabrera‘s wages of $250 per week, each dollar is spoken for, she said, so a clinic visit cuts into the budget for school clothes or means less meat for dinner. As of New Year’s Day, her family won‘t be forced into these difficult choices — nor will the janitors cleaning 70 percent of the city’s office buildings.

Alarcon is a member of the state Senate‘s Industrial Relations Committee, which held hearings last month on nonunionized “underground” cleaning contractors, revealing numerous violations of California tax and labor laws. The largely immigrant work force at these companies, according to testimony, is often deprived of overtime wages and prescribed meal breaks. Charges against eight companies were referred to the Employment Development Department’s compliance division for tax violations, including failure to pay payroll taxes.

Among the central targets of the union‘s weeklong campaign is Arden Realty, Southern California’s largest property owner and manager. Arden properties include the Summa Corp. building and Corporate Pointe complex in Culver City and the World Savings Bank headquarters tower in Brentwood, among others. More than two-thirds of Arden‘s buildings are now served by SEIU employees, but 30 percent are still using nonunion contractors, said union organizer Blanca Gallegos.

Complaints are pending before the state Labor Commission over practices at one of Arden’s buildings in Woodland Hills, said Javier Gonzalez of the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, a watchdog group. According to testimony before the state Senate committee, AJ&M Services was paying $45 to $50 per night for shifts of up to 12 hours combining work at the Arden building and two others; by minimum-wage and overtime laws, these employees were due close to $90. Mary Russo, a manager at AJ&M, denied that in an interview and said her company has never underpaid anyone.

While upcoming contract negotiations in February will take place between union representatives and the contractors, the invisible players at the table are the building managers or owners. Their willingness to underwrite contract gains is essential. As the Southland‘s leading property manager, Arden — which is headed by heavy-hitting Democratic Party contributor Richard Ziman — is expected to set the trend for the industry as a whole, says Gallegos.

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