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Worried janitors put city on alert

As jobs slip away, union hints at shutdowns like those in other big cities

Aracely Rivera-Mendez, barely 5 feet tall and a janitor, hardly seems like a typical adversary for Portland real estate tycoon Tom Moyer.

Yet there she stood outside the Hilton Portland Hotel on Tuesday, condemning Moyer before he received the Urban Pioneer award from Portland State University's College of Urban and Public Affairs.

Rivera-Mendez, representing the Service Employees International Union Local 49, condemned the use of a nonunion firm to clean Moyer's Fox Tower.

'I want to congratulate Tom Moyer for winning this prize he got on the sweat of janitors in his building,' Rivera-Mendez said.

Rivera-Mendez's comments came during a 'sidewalk dinner' held by the union's Justice for Janitors campaign during the Moyer award ceremony. The event hints at the union's increasing profile over the next several weeks.

The service union wants to boost janitors' visibility as it negotiates a new contract with firms that clean office buildings in downtown Portland. The current union contract expires June 30; talks on a new agreement began Tuesday.

Walkout remains possible

'We have to become politically active because many of the things we're dealing with can't be won at the bargaining table,' said Robyn Steely, the union's political director. 'Just because people do work when we've all gone home, they still have rights to living wages.'

The group hasn't dismissed the idea of a walkout if an agreement isn't reached, Steely said.

'We talk all the time about them being invisible, but when they don't show up to clean the toilet, they actually become very visible,' she noted.

Along with dirty toilets, the failed contract talks could bring commuting headaches. If janitors take to the streets, the action could attract Portland's myriad workers' rights supporters in an expression of solidarity.

Nationally, Justice for Janitors spurred virtual shutdowns of traffic in Boston in 2002 and in Los Angeles in 2000.

'They're serious,' said Marshall Runkel, an aide to city Commissioner Erik Sten. 'They practically shut down Boston and L.A. They're starting small and trying to work things out in a friendly way at this point, but they're just ramping up. If that's not successful, I expect to see a re-creation of some of the stuff that's happened in other cities.'

The group has scheduled a noon march on June 13 at Terry Shrunk Plaza. The event promises 'banners, puppets and theater.'

The staging of the sidewalk dining event featured about 40 custodians in purple T-shirts who waved brightly colored dust brooms and munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Garage business may go

Members of SEIU Local 49 also appeared before the Portland City Commission on May 23 to protest Star Park's use of Courtesy Janitorial, a nonunion firm. The city recently transferred management of its SmartPark garages to Star Park. The switch to Star Park, Steely said, would eliminate eight union jobs.

Roy Jay, who helped select the contractors that will work with Star Park, said Courtesy's pay and benefits exceed those received by most union janitors. Nonetheless, he said, he and union reps will try to return jobs to some laid-off union workers.

'We never heard from (the union) while the (garage) bidding process was going on,' Jay said. 'I think they bet on the wrong horse, and that horse didn't come in.

'But we're keeping the door open, and we hope something is finalized in the next week.'

Justice for Janitors criticized Moyer because Fox Tower employs custodians who purchase cleaning franchise rights from National Maintenance Contractors. The company, based in Bellevue, Wash., has franchise fees ranging from $2,000 to $25,000.

SEIU Local 49 officials said that after paying for franchise fees, supplies and taxes, the take-home pay of janitors in the Fox Tower dwindles below that received by those making the minimum wage.

The local counts 2,000 janitors among its ranks. Its members provide services for Portland Public Schools and Portland International Airport as well as local and federal government buildings.

Nonunion janitors in Portland make between $7 and $8 an hour, while union custodians make $9.50, the group says.

'Whether a firm is union or nonunion, they have to be competitive in pricing and provide excellent service,' said Don Palmer, an analyst with Portland real estate consultancy Palmer Groth & Pietka.

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .