Janitorial workers demand higher wages

Students joined in after learning about the protests. Attendees expressed concern about living wages for custodians. (Polina Past | Daily Trojan)

With shouts of “justice for janitors!“ and “sí se puede!” to rally their colleagues, about 60 USC janitorial workers and supporters held a protest Wednesday expressing their demands of higher wages proportional to inflation rates in Los Angeles and affordable healthcare benefits. The protest began in front of Tommy Trojan before migrating to the center of USC Village with protesters expressing their willingness to strike. 

“We’re telling USC: You either pay up, make sure you pay these workers a just wage, make sure they have the benefits to be able to take care of their families,” said David Huerta, president of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West. “If they’re not prepared to do that, then we’re willing to go on strike.”

David discussed the current state of negotiations between their employer, Aramark, and the custodial workers at USC. The contract currently in effect will expire Thursday after a three-month extension. Antonio Solis, a driver for the SEIU, said the workers are prepared to demand another extension from the Labor Commission if an agreement is not reached. 

The custodial staff used to work for USC but got laid off 26 years ago. They now work under Aramark and do not recieve any USC benefits, such as discounts on campus, transportation passes and sports game tickets. (Polina Past | Daily Trojan)

“As of right now, what the employer has put on the table is, in our opinion, unacceptable,” David said. “Employers [are] putting 30 cents per hour on the table which is, in all actuality, less than a 1% increase to our membership.”

According to David, many of the present custodial workers previously worked as direct USC employees, but the University laid them off 26 years ago. After two years, the workers formed a union and negotiated on a contract-by-contract basis. Since then, USC custodial staff members have worked under Aramark and remained on the University campus. However, because of this employer switch, workers lost USC-specific benefits.

“These workers lost their wages, they lost their healthcare,” David said. “They lost the right to be able to send their sons and daughters to this institution without any charge to tuition.”

Salvador Hernandez, who has worked as a custodian for nearly 32 years, said that, prior to the termination between USC and the custodial workers, employees received benefits such as discounts on the USC campus, transportation passes and tickets to sports games.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Kevin de Leon attended and spoke at the protest. In an interview with the Daily Trojan, he called for community solidarity among Angelenos and USC affiliates. (Polina Past | Daily Trojan)

Manuela Flores, who has worked as a custodial worker for 22 years, expressed concern with the current conditions she and her colleagues face, and Aramark’s unwillingness to increase wages. 

“It’s frustrating,” Flores said in Spanish. “Twenty-two years and, at this point, feeling like this? It’s ridiculous.”

In addition to the union workers, some USC students joined the protest after hearing about it and left wondering how else they could support the cause. 

Delia Huerta, a senior majoring in art history, was interested in the protest as she views the custodial staff as essential to the community.

“They truly are the backbone of the University, and I don’t think they should be [reduced] to these unfair working conditions and unfair wages,” Delia said. 

Delia said she would be willing to join other efforts organized by the workers to help pursue efforts for higher wages and hopes others will get involved as well.

“Everybody else should get together and support these people because, without them, the University wouldn’t be what it is,” Delia said. “They truly do do everything for the University, so I think it’s really important to just come out and support them in any way that we can.”

The USC janitorial workers chanted phrases such as “justice for janitors” and “sí se puede” during the protest. (Polina Past | Daily Trojan)

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Kevin de León appeared at the demonstration in support of the custodial staff, addressing them prior to the start of the march. De León spoke about the significance of community for the workers and the importance of standing in solidarity.

“They’re part of our community here at USC,” De León said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “They’re part of our Los Angeles community. They’re Angelenos themselves. So we need to express our voices and make sure they get what’s right.”

Organizers created a petition for the public to offer their support for the custodial workers, called the “USC Community Petition to Support Fair Wages for USC Janitors Employed by Aramark.” The petition invites community members to spread word of the negotiations and to join a Slack channel for updates about the cause. At the time of publication, the petition had garnered about 700 signatures. 

In a continuation of their efforts, the custodial workers will bargain at the Aramark office in Downtown L.A. Thursday.

Christina Chkarboul and Jenna Peterson contributed to this report.