Silent workers speak up for their rights

Janitors explain that they simply want equitable pay and a fair share of the nation's riches.

Every weekday afternoon at 5 o'clock, a petite young woman with sparkling dark eyes and a shy smile begins making the rounds of the second-floor offices in our building. Quietly and efficiently, she goes from cubicle to cubicle, emptying wastebaskets. Later she will dust desks, computers, bookshelves. She and other members of the cleaning crew also polish bathrooms, mop floors, and vacuum carpets, readying the space for another day.

It is the kind of work that white-collar employees everywhere take for granted, noticing only when it isn't done.

But in recent weeks, this silent, essential work has become headline news. In a handful of cities across the country, normally invisible janitors - a majority of them Latinos - have been striking to protest low wages and a lack of health insurance. Turning plastic wastebaskets into makeshift drums and bearing placards reading "Justice for Janitors," they explain that they simply want what every worker wants - equitable pay for their labor and a fair share of the nation's riches.

Stories of inequities mount: In Silicon Valley, some janitors and their families are living in garages, the only housing they can afford. In San Diego, cleaning crews have been striking for three weeks, demanding health insurance. In Chicago, janitors working in downtown offices staged a one-day strike to win a contract that will raise their pay by $1.10 an hour over three years. In suburban Chicago, where their wages average about $7 an hour, some face an impossible choice between buying food for their families or paying the rent.

Anyone inclined to dismiss the janitors' strikes as a minor event should check the Yellow Pages of any big-city telephone book to see what a booming industry cleaning has become. In Boston, where no strikes have occurred, the phone directory carries 288 entries under the heading "Janitor Services." The list fills 4-1/2 pages.

Most days, the cheerful young woman cleaning our offices goes about her work wordlessly, trying not to disturb those of us still at our desks. But now and then in recent months, she has paused briefly on her rounds to answer a few questions and share details of her life and family. She typifies many of the Latino women who make up more than half of the janitorial workers in some cities.

In soft-spoken, halting English, she explains that she and her husband arrived in Boston from El Salvador five years ago. They are parents of a four-year-old daughter, Madeleine, and are expecting a baby in late May. "This is Sarah," she says, lovingly patting her very pregnant waist. During her evening shift, her husband cares for Madeleine.

Her mother has come once from El Salvador to visit. But for the most part the young couple are on their own, working hard to build a life in their adopted country.

She says she likes her job and looks forward to coming to work every day. Yet she frets about her inability to improve her language skills. Only her daughter is able to move freely between two cultures and speak English well.

What will the future hold for this hard-working mother and for legions of other immigrants consigned, by choice or necessity, to clean the offices occupied by people earning vastly more than they can even dream about?

With their humble tools - mops, rags, vacuums - they bring a different set of skills. In performing tasks that no one else wants to do but everybody needs done, they prove that dignity takes many forms. Who can blame them for hoping that all the Madeleines and baby Sarahs and other offspring of these workers will someday go to college and make a better life, far outearning their parents' humble wages and needing no wastebasket drums to get attention?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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