The march concluded outside city hall with a rally and clergy washing the feet of janitorial staff.
A group of spiritual leaders assembled by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice used the celebration of Holy Thursday to join with organized-labor supporters in a push to publicize ongoing negotiations between commercial building owners and the after-hours staff that maintain their facilities.
Specifically targeted by a march consisting of about 150 protesters rallying behind a cross that was carried through downtown was Irvine Company, an Orange County–based real estate firm that manages residential and commercial space throughout Southern California and in Silicon Valley. Protesters, who began their march at Symphony Towers and stopped at Wells Fargo Plaza (two high-rises controlled by Irvine), complained of low wages and dangerous working conditions, especially for a population consisting largely of female immigrants, some undocumented.
Maria Maya, speaking with the assistance of a translator, says she's been working in San Diego's janitorial industry for more than 16 years. Like others working under a United Service Workers West union contract, she makes $10.33 an hour.
"During that time, I have had to cope with very bad experiences involving sexual harassment from my supervisor," Maya says. "Other women who have been victimized like me cannot stay quiet; it is time to talk, to share your story. This affects us all — your family, your work team, your partner at home. Day to day, we fight to lead our families out of poverty, and we want to do so with respect and dignity."
The union, in addition to higher wages, is seeking language that provides safeguards against sexual harassment in a new contract it's currently negotiating. They also seek union recognition for security guards, a currently unrepresented class of workers that also often make low wages and work late nights in the office towers downtown.
Alejandra Valles, union secretary-treasurer, shared her own experiences with sexual assault once the march concluded outside city hall and a rally commenced featuring clergy washing the feet of janitorial staff in a symbolic gesture harkening back to the biblical acts of Jesus on Holy Thursday.
"I remember the night like it was yesterday — when I finally had the courage to call 911 and was taken in, and when I was so shaken up I could barely speak, I was asked if I 'had papers,'" Valles said. "My privilege has never stared me in the face so much as then — I have a stable job I'm not in fear of losing, supportive male coworkers, I am a U.S. citizen, and I have no children to take care of. But what would have happened if I had been undocumented?"
Reverend Frank Placone-Wiley of Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship lamented that building owners and property managers were failing to "love one another" as scripture says Jesus commanded on the holy day.
"It appears to us that you're participating in a system that treats people as commodities, that exploits their labor, does not pay them enough to live on, and turns a blind eye to the unsafe conditions, psychological abuse, sexual harassment, and assault that go unaddressed in your place of business," said Placone-Wiley. "You're using the laws that exist and the power of immigration and customs enforcement to your own convenience in ways that are shameful violations of the spirit of love, instead looking like little more than a legalized form of indentured servitude."
State representative and onetime labor leader Lorena Gonzalez echoed Placone-Wiley's thoughts.
"For years and decades, employers and building owners have turned a blind eye because they don't have to actually see the workers, to look at their faces," Gonzalez intoned. "So when we hear about sexual harassment of female janitors, there's shock because they've never seen the workers, so it's easier not to see them as human beings."
The group continues to plan further actions to call attention to pay and working conditions of low-wage employees and has made up a significant contingent of the "Fight for 15" campaign for a $15 minimum wage.
"Our janitors and workers in the property-services industry, which includes security guards, are living 200 percent below the poverty level in this country," says Valles. "And a disproportionate number of them are women who are exploited or sexually assaulted in the workplace and afraid to speak out."