Salvador Hernandez still remembers when he started working at USC almost 25 years ago, even down to the day he first stepped on campus — April 9, 1991. The school was smaller back then, he said, and quieter, a good environment for his work as a janitor, which often required him to clean nearly every building on campus. He has lived close to USC almost from the beginning, but he knows that not all University workers have been so lucky.
“I was living inside a house [in South Central] for seven years, and the family there had to leave the house to move to another state, because they couldn’t handle the price,” Hernandez said. “Living here close to USC is a huge privilege, but you have to pay for it.”
Harold Ubeda arrived at USC’s gates much later, working as a janitor at the campus for the past year and a half. Like Hernandez, he too has experienced the difficulties of rising rent and stagnant wages.
“It’s very difficult to live in downtown Los Angeles because when [workers] have to spend 60 to 70 percent of our salary on rent […] we lose the cultural and recreational parts of life,” Ubeda said in Spanish. “We don’t have enough money to buy books, to go to the theater, and we lose those social benefits.”
Both Hernandez and Ubeda feel that the rising cost of rent in the area wouldn’t be as big of a problem if their wages as service workers could keep up, but for them and for the rest of USC’s custodial staff, they say that’s not the case.
“Justice for Janitors”
On Sept. 9, approximately 200 janitors and custodial staff marched down Trousdale Parkway, holding signs demanding “Justice for Janitors” and shouting “Si! Se Puede,” meaning “Yes! We can” in Spanish. Their motto invoked the United Farm Workers’ rallies of the 1960s, when Hispanic farm workers campaigned for better wages and working conditions in the agriculture industry.
Though the time, place and means of employment are different — the workers today are janitors and custodians, rather than field laborers and grape pickers — the demands are the same. The protesters at USC called for higher wages, increased health care benefits and dignity in the workplace; they passed out flyers urging student and faculty involvement and called on USC President C. L. Max Nikias and Facilities Management Services Associate Vice President John Welsh to take a greater role in improving their situation.
The rally, organized by the Service Employees International Union – United Service Workers West, the labor union representing the custodial staff at USC, grew as a response to issues with contract negotiations between the janitors and their employer, Aramark.
For nearly 20 years, USC has subcontracted its service workers through Aramark rather than hiring them directly. The previous labor contract between Aramark and SEIU, which had been in place since 2012, expired on June 30, leaving 240 workers without a contract until negotiations could settle contentious issues, from wages to health care benefits.
SEIU and Aramark began negotiations in late July and have since gone through at least six rounds of discussions without reaching a conclusion. SEIU demands an increase in the workers’ wages, which currently start at $9.75 per hour, a figure that SEIU spokesman Edmundo Garcia says is unlivable.
“One of the issues that [workers] are facing is the growing rent in Los Angeles. They’re being pushed out of the [South Central] neighborhood, having to drive greater distances,” Garcia said. “We want to make sure that our workers earn wages that give their families opportunities and not have to struggle as far as making it here in Los Angeles.”
Garcia, who serves as the lead contract enforcement specialist at USWW, describes the SEIU’s attitude towards USC as an “open invitation” to join the negotiating table at any time.
“USC is not a direct negotiator, but they still have the ability to put pressure on Aramark and lead the way,” Garcia said. “We don’t want USC to have workers on their campus that are struggling to make a living. This is a top-tier institution, so we think that the work should reflect that.”
The University and Facilities Management Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment, except to say that USC has no part in the negotiations, which are a private matter between SEIU and Aramark.
In an email, Aramark stated that though it “[could] not comment on specifics around union contracts or negotiations,” its representatives and SEIU “have had several meetings and continue to make good progress to date.”
Ultimately, Garcia believes that Aramark’s demands are driven by profit.
“The company is looking for ways to ‘trim the fat’ and make it more efficient, but we want to make sure that it’s not on the workers’ backs at the cost of the workers’ benefits,” Garcia said.
He and the SEIU believe that if USC were to get involved, it would be in line with the values the University aims to promote, which is a view shared by some in the student community, most predominantly those of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation.
Members like Lorelei Christie believe that the University has the power to affect the negotiations, even if it’s not the janitors’ direct employer.
“At a school with so much money, a school that’s actively raising millions of dollars, I find it completely disgusting that we let workers live under the poverty line or work without a contract,” Christie said. “At a school that has so many resources, I think there’s no reason to not make sure that these janitors have the working conditions they deserve [and] the wages they deserve — because [they’re] members of the Trojan Family.”
Fellow SCALE member Jenny Villegas said the University is not only capable of helping the workers, but that it also has a responsibility to do so.
“I would hope to see USC treat its workers with as much dignity and respect as they treat their football team,” Villegas said. “We need to make sure that the workers that we have that keep the institution running are being paid fairly, treated fairly and getting the treatment they deserve.”
A history of conflict
Though significant, the current conflict is far from unique. Janitors at USC, in conjunction with the SEIU, have been protesting on and off for almost two decades.
The struggle began in 1996, when the University decided to hire a subcontractor, ServiceMaster, to provide custodial staff, instead of directly hiring the workers. After this switch, the staff experienced a dramatic decline in wages, benefits and working conditions. They lost their rights to tuition remission for their children and faced intimidation and harassment, Hernandez said.
“Many people were fired, and many left because they could not handle being here,” Hernandez said. “Before the change, I remember we received free tickets to watch the football games. Now, we have nothing like that. Before, it was like a family. Now, it’s like business.”
At the time, USC janitors were not unionized and experienced strong resistance from ServiceMaster when they attempted to gain membership with SEIU. The conflict led to sustained protests throughout much of 1996 and 1997, which made incremental steps toward satisfying the workers’ demands. Finally, in the spring of 1997, after a secret ballot that overwhelmingly favored unionization, the USC janitors were allowed membership into the SEIU and, thus, could begin to negotiate a labor contract.
In 2001, USC switched subcontractors from ServiceMaster to Aramark and negotiations began again. Protests in 2009 and 2012 focused on improving healthcare benefits for workers, who faced greater insurance costs and copay requirements after the expiration of their contract with Aramark.
Today’s workers want to continue the benefits they earned in their previous contract and additionally raise salaries to keep up with the rising cost of rent in the area. Negotiating a new contract, however, can take months, and in the meantime, SEIU is staging rallies in support of the workers while simultaneously calling on the University to take action in the contract negotiations.
“USC is a prestigious institution,” Garcia said. “What happens at that site is going to send ripple effects through the industry. It’s going to set precedents [and] it’s going to impact the largely Latino and black working community that works in our bargaining units and that lives in many of our neighborhoods.”
Hernandez, Ubeda and many other service workers enjoy working at USC but worry that, with the current conditions, they will not be able to afford to work here much longer.
“Our workers are generally very proud to work at USC. Students treat us well, and workers, including me, feel motivated,” Ubeda said. “[But when] we are having to move and being displaced from the South Central neighborhood because we can’t afford the rent here, we can’t maintain the feeling of community.”
To avoid many of these issues, Hernandez said, the solution is simple.
“For every person that loses a position, their family is going to lose money, is going to lose food, is going to lose everything,” Hernandez said. “And they’re going to be afraid of the new changes every time we do negotiations. We need to be treated like people, like human beings.”