Santa Barbara and Ventura county janitors convened outside the Albertsons grocery store on the Mesa on Tuesday afternoon to protest what they term unfair treatment by their supermarket employers. The protestors called for fairer wages, better healthcare, and a safer working environment. This action, organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, is the first taken in Santa Barbara. The protest is part of a series of protests held simultaneously throughout Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and San Diego.
Janitors claimed that their health is being put at risk by the toxic chemicals in cleaning products, and criticized supermarkets - namely Albertsons - which continues to use them despite knowledge of their potential dangers. “A lot of these chemicals [used for cleaning] are outlawed in penitentiaries and schools,” Mike Chavez, SEIU Local 1877’s political coordinator. “How is it that we’re protecting criminals from these chemicals and we’re exposing the general public, in this case our janitors, to them?”
Protestors complained that after a day’s work, they either feel dizzy, nauseous, or that their throats hurt. “In some cases, [we] bleed in our nose because some of those chemicals are so concentrated,” said a SEIU member. “We contribute to this community, we do an excellent job, and we like what we do, but we need the company to commit to decent wages and respect [us].” Photos of workers’ hands, broken out in rashes from chemicals, stood by the entrance of the supermarket, distracting customers as they walked in. “They’re human beings, too,” said Tracee Reynaud, an Albertsons shopper who joined the demonstration.
In addition to unsafe working environments, janitors also protested having to pay higher wages for health care, especially while supermarkets remain one of the few industries unscathed by the recession. “The supermarket industry is profiting because less people are eating out at restaurants and more people are eating at home,” said Chavez. “Yet, they’re crying wolf, saying that the economy is bad [which is why they’re] trying to scale back health care for our janitors. The combination of toxic chemicals and scaling back health care doesn’t make sense.”
Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams and Santa Maria City Councilmember Hilda Zacarias showed support for the protest, speaking out against the supermarkets on behalf of the janitors. “[Janitors are already] working at wages that most of us couldn’t make it with. To ask them to take some of those hard-earned dollars and pay an increased cost in health care is unacceptable,” said Hilda Zacarias. “We’re going to ask you to tell Albertsons ‘no.’”
Williams, rallying directly beside the SEIU, also addressed shoppers. “In the name of Santa Barbara, we ask Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons to stop using toxic materials for their cleaning supplies, transition to green materials like so many other industries are doing, and treat their workers fairly. This is a worker-friendly town, and people want to shop at worker-friendly businesses.”
In response to Tuesday’s protest and others like it throughout Southern California, Albertson’s released a statement addressing the janitors’ concerns. “The health and safety of our customers, associates and contract employees are a top priority for Albertsons. We work closely with our cleaning chemical suppliers to provide safe and effective cleaning products. The sanitation cleaning chemicals used to clean our stores are compliant with the requirements of the Code of Federal Regulations and used in accordance with the manufacturers labeled directions.” The statement continued, “We do not know why the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 is saying untruths about Albertsons. What I can tell you is that we are disappointed that this is the SEIU’s response to our commitment at the bargaining table. Albertsons believes the only way to get a new contract is to negotiate at the bargaining table, but instead, the SEIU is focusing on conducting rallies about topics that are untrue.”
Protestors, however, maintain the chemicals are injuring not only janitors but also Albertsons customers due to the toxic environment their products are being sold in. “In an environmentally conscious community such as Santa Barbara, a lot of people buy organic products; but the chemicals that they are using in the store [that they buy them from] are not,” said Chavez.
“I didn’t realize [the chemicals] they were using [were] toxic,” said Juanita Chatham, a customer, alarmed by the protest. “I am trying my best to stay away from [using cleaning products with chemicals] at home, so it’s shocking to hear that they use [them] here.”
PUEBLO, a nonprofit organization defending low-income residents throughout Santa Barbara County, also called for justice at the protest. “We hope to come out with a decent contract for all the workers throughout Southern California”, said Belen Seara, PUEBLO executive director.
The janitors hope their protest will result in a bargaining session with Albertsons, the last of the major supermarkets to concede to one. “We’ve had five bargaining sessions with Ralphs. Albertsons refuses to engage in formal negotiations,” said Chavez. “We’re here to pressure them to go back to the table and [to] just be fair. We’re not asking for a lot, we know that the economy is bad. We’re willing to take concessions on wages, but we’re not willing to compromise the health of our janitors.”
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Sara Tan is an Independent intern.