March 24, 2016 (San Diego) Holy Thursday is the begging of the most significant week in the Christian religious calendar. In San Diego, Janitors who are part of the Service Employee International Union, carried the cross though all stations, down 7th avenue, on the way to Civic Center Plaza.
Different workers carried the cross, a heavy cross. It signified the very real cross many of them carry on every day. They work at night, the invisible workers that clean offices across downtown business towers, or at labs, or other places. They are the ones that make sure your wastebasket is cleaned, if you work at an office. They are the ones who vacuum your office.
Maria Amaya spoke to the crowd at the last station, when Jesus spoke to the women of Jerusalem. She said, “I have worked in the industry for 16 years.” She came to speak to the crowd about the sexual abuse “that exists in the workplace.” She added, “I lived through sexual harassment from a supervisor, and we as women have to stop it. We as women are also victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.”
She encouraged those who have been victims of it to speak, and not to remain silent. She encouraged women to talk to supervisors, the higher ups. She said that women need to stop this harassment. She reminded the crowd that the Union is negotiating a new contract. The last one was negotiated in 1998. Part of the negotiations is language that will hold the companies accountable.
Reporting San Diego spoke about this issue with Alejandra Valles. She is the Treasurer of the SEIU, and also of the branch of the Union that is trying to organize security guards in San Diego.
She told us that the contract goes beyond the sexual harassment, though language will be included to help stop this. There are two issues with the contract. The first is that companies are contracting out the maintainace of the buildings to private contractors. “Contractors and security officers are being under paid.” This is proportional to the amount of contracted out work. “The level of poverty within those jobs has skyrocketed.”
Many of these workers are living under 200 percent of the poverty level, Valles credited a UC Berkeley study. We are linking to the study for readers who are interested.
Valles also pointed out that 25 percent of all immigrant women live in the state of California. “They are disproportionately impacted by sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the workplace.” She added that in the actual contract negotiations “we want the building owners and the contractors that they hire to say we must do something about this.” Moreover, “building owners must be responsible for what happens in their building.” Valles also pointed out that right now anybody can become a contractor. She credited Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez for introduction legislation that will help regulate the industry. This is AB 1917.
Before the washing of feet, Valles also told her personal story. She was assaulted. She had never felt her privilege more acutely before that night. It took her a little time to get the courage to call 911. Because of the trauma she could not really speak. The first question from the officer was “do you have papers?” She is a US Citizen, she has no children, and had no fear about losing her job. That night she felt that privilege quite acutely, since many of the janitors have a family, and cannot afford to lose even one job.
Fermina Beltran also spoke about job conditions. Beltran started by pointing out that she has worked in the industry, as a janitor for 23 years. She is also part of the contract negotiating team. She also pointed out that contract negotiations started last Tuesday. “I am here with my allies, since we are in the struggle for a dignified contract; One that should recognize the great work and the great effort of janitors.”
She added that they work at night, when it is dangerous and they suffer sexual abuse by supervisors “who believe that because we are immigrants and workers we do not deserve respect. Enough with this treatment, enough with the abuse, enough with poverty wages”
Beltran also told the story of a fellow worker. She is working three jobs, which is not unusual. She was there for the struggle to get health insurance. She helps to clean a research lab that investigates cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and cannot afford to take any time off to take care of her medical needs. Nor can she afford to lose a job, or she would lose her health insurance. “This is not a way of living.” Beltran remarked.
Jose Gonzalez is a young Security Guard, and he spoke as to how they are not unionized. Nor do they get the training they need to do the job. He is the son of a military family and remarked as to how little respect military vets, who are security guards, get.
He also spoke of poverty wages, and how they are trying to organize into a union. This is as part of the SEIU organizing effort. This was the first time he has ever spoken before a crowd. His nerves did show, but he did a very good job nonetheless.
Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez (D-AD80) and Congressman Juan Vargas (D-51) came to the ceremony and washed feet. Gonzalez spoke about how these workers are invincible and we need to remember them. She remarked “It’s easier not to see them as human beings, as mothers, wives and sisters and daughters. That’s who our janitors are.”
She added, that in this campaign when people are saying “ya basta, see us, no longer can we allow our janitors to go unseen and the exploitation that happens every single day.”
Vargas remarked “we are with you today, to wash your feet. You wash our feet every day, when you work so hard. We are here to tell you, that we are with you always. We will support you, since we need to have this justice for you. We thank you for having the courage to be here.”
The Religious Ceremony
There were bishops from all kinds of Christian affiliations. The master of ceremonies was Rabbi Laurie Coskey, who is the executive director of the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice.
One of the best moments of the ceremony, very meaningful for Catholics, was the blessing of the ceremony by Bishop Robert W McElroy. He reminded the assembled that when “Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, he destroys the structures of distinction and separation in human society.”
McElroy also reminded the crowd that Jesus wanted to make all into one, and that is the prayer today.” He addressed Imam Taha Hassane, “in our unity with the Muslim community at this time. May you know we stand with you with great strength and unity.” This was met by raucous applause.
Then he turned to the workers, many of whom speak Spanish as their primary language. “The cross is a symbol of the whole human family in the sacrifice of Jesus.” He asked God to bless the ceremony and the moment.
Before the washing of the feet, one of the religious leaders, a Rabbi, explained that in the Jewish tradition there is truly no washing of the feet, except when Judith washed the feet of the servants of David. Though in the Jewish tradition washing of hands precedes holy moments. Imam Hasane explained that the washing of the face, feet and hands precedes the five prayers that Muslims are required to do every day. If somebody is not able, others in the community are supposed to help. And a Christian leader explained that in the Christian faith this also erases social distances, which Bishop McElroy with.
People took their places and feet were washed. It was a symbolic moment of unity, when a United States Congressman washed the feet of a worker, and a rabbi washed the feet of a worker. Social classes, and religious traditions vanished if for an instant. It was a very powerful moment when Bishops of many Christian traditions, among them Bishop George Dallas McKinney washed the feet of workers.
Then some of our faith leaders washed the feet of other faith leaders. This was a beautiful start to Holy Week. It was both a strong moment of social unity, but also a strong moment of the human family.