Union jobs aren't always lost. Sometimes they're won -- typically by people who are willing to lose a job to get a better one.
That's the story of Luz Maria Flores, a 42-year-old widow and mother of three teenagers. On Aug. 2, after reducing her hours from 40 a week to 15, which she complained she couldn't live on, the janitorial company that employed her at the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood fired Flores.
She says she got dumped because a manager at the Millard Group, a company that cleans Alderwood and other shopping malls across the nation, found out that she'd signed a union card -- a document that authorizes a union to start representing employees at a workplace.
A co-worker was also fired after a photo of her appeared in a union flyer. And an organizer with Local 6 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) says mall security threatened to have him arrested if he showed up again.
None of it is legal, says Jorge Duenas, the organizer for Local 6. So, on Sept. 19, the union filed three new charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. The charges add to five already filed against Alderwood, bringing the national total to 37 complaints that SEIU has filed since August against Millard and Alderwood's owner, Chicago-based General Growth Properties.
It's part of a national campaign that SEIU started six months ago to organize some 3,000 janitors employed by Millard and another company that provide janitorial services under contract to General Growth Properties. A public company, it cleared $1.9 billion in profit last year from the 194 malls it owns across the nation, including Alderwood, Seattle's Westlake Center, and five other malls in Washington state.
So far, Duenas says, 20 of the 23 janitors at Alderwood have signed union cards. Since then, he says, Millard has held several anti-union meetings with employees and fired three union activists -- leaving the remaining workers very scared, Duenas says.
Through an interpreter, Flores, an Edmonds resident, says she had worked for Millard nine months, making $7.93 an hour to clean toilets and tables at Alderwood with no benefits, no holidays, and no respect from managers. "They call workers stupid and crazy," Flores says.
When a co-worker started talking to her a few months ago about joining the union, she signed on for the effort -- only to find herself fired after she and Duenas went to Millard's Lynnwood office to discuss why her hours had been reduced.
"It was a very unfair termination," says Flores, who is now trying to support three children on unemployment.
Duenas himself was booted from a mall parking lot after a security guard approached his truck and demanded to know his business. "You come back," he recalls the guard saying, and "[we] will call the police." A spokesperson for the Millard Group was not available. But Jim Graham, director of public affairs for General Growth Properties in Chicago, says the company does not oppose unions and is fully cooperating with the National Labor Relations Board as it investigates SEIU's complaints, though he had no specific information on any allegations at Alderwood.
Graham also points out that, on Aug. 6, in the wake of the union organizing drive, the company announced that its janitorial contractors will be required to pay market wages and offer workers a 75 percent employer-paid benefit package. The program, says Duenas, is an illegal employer tactic for which SEIU has also filed a labor complaint.
But Graham says that unfair labor charges are typical in union organizing. "Filing complaints with government agencies is a standard tactic from the SEIU playbook," he says. It's "a common tactic to try to embarrass the companies they have targeted."
Flores says the mall owner should be embarrassed. The Millard Group's managers at Alderwood make workers feel like animals, she says. And in the anti-union meetings Millard held, she says, workers were told, "'You are nothing. Your job -- everybody can do it.'"
Flores says that only made her more determined to fight for the job security of a union contract. "Without the union," she says, "they can do anything they want."