It’s the last thing you might expect to see on a suburban street corner in a Northern California town like Lafayette or Martinez: a caravan of women janitors wearing bright red bandannas, carrying giant posters reading “Ya Basta!” (Enough is enough!) and chanting “Who owns my body? I do!”
The janitors, who come from across California, began their march on Monday at the Golden Gate Bridge. They're expected to arrive in Sacramento Friday for a rally and protest on the Capitol steps. They're asking Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill, AB 2079, they say would go a long way to preventing sexual abuse on the night shift. Many of them have been harassed, groped, even raped in the buildings they clean, often by supervisors who take advantage of their isolated working conditions.
The janitors' campaign was launched after KQED, Reveal, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, Univision and Frontline produced a series called “Rape on the Night Shift.”
That reporting inspired a law passed last year, requiring janitorial companies to provide sexual harassment training for all employees. It was sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher of San Diego. She has now pushed through a second bill, which would require janitorial companies to allow workers to give that training to each other.
“We don’t want human resources or some lawyer to gives us the classes,” says Marta Mejia, a janitor from Los Angeles on the march. “The harassment and violence will just continue at work. It won’t change anything.”
Mejia has been training as a promotora, or peer educator, to learn how to talk to other janitors about preventing sexual violence. She and other building cleaners have even been taking self-defense classes to learn how to prevent a supervisor from attacking them if they’re alone at night cleaning an office.
But the union behind the march, Service Employees International Union/United Service Workers West, worries that with a slew of #MeToo bills on his desk, Brown won’t see a reason for a special bill regarding janitors.
But the union’s secretary treasurer, Alejandra Valles, says that since Donald Trump was elected, there’s a heightened fear of deportation in the immigrant community, and she thinks women are more likely to confide in another janitor.
“Is it going to be somebody in a suit and tie or someone who looks like them?” Valles asks. “It makes the difference between whether that woman is going to live in silence or whether that woman’s going to actually report it."
“Often times we deal with immigration status and sanctuary state on its own, or sexual violence in a silo, but that is not what's happening,” Valles adds. “This is a moment where California can lead on the intersection of immigration and sexual violence prevention.”
The California Chamber of Commerce argues that businesses should be able to decide who gives their HR training and how much to pay them. (The bill would mandate that janitor peer trainers be paid at least twice the state minimum wage.) You can read their opposition letter here.
The janitors on the march are planning civil disobedience and a protest at the Capitol Friday. Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill.