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San Diego County janitors' strike averted

Janitorial workers meant business as they rallied outside of the San Diego County administration building in support of four former coworkers who claim they suffered severe punishment in retaliation for trying to start a union for better working conditions.

One of them is Sofia Martinez. Martinez said in Spanish, "They made me dump 15 liters of chemicals on the floor and made me scrape them with a knife for eight hours on my hands and knees and the next day they wanted me to do the same thing and I said no, that I needed specialized equipment, I burned my hands my nose was bleeding."  

Martinez said she felt so terrible, she went home and could not do the same work the next day. So she said she was fired by Nova, the company that contracts with the county for janitorial services.

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Christian Ramirez, the policy director with the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) and United Service Workers West, the union Martinez was organizing for.

The union is demanding that Nova give the fired workers their jobs back. Rodriguez said Nova has a $22 million contract with the county, and employs 300 workers.

"These jobs used to be county jobs and now about 20 years ago the county decided to contract workers out hiring mostly immigrant women who work in the night shift pay them close to minimum wage with no health benefit, with no paid holidays no paid vacation and on top of that they have faced unjust working conditions," Ramirez said. 

We reached out to Nova. They told us they could not comment except to say they’re working with the county.

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Matthew Bowler
/
KPBS
Nora Vargas, Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, speaking at a janitor’s union rally outside the County Administration Building before the board meeting, Jan. 24, 2023.

Nora Vargas, the first Latina elected chair of the County Board of Supervisors, met with the janitors before the board's meeting. She came out just before the meeting to give the workers a message of support in Spanish and English. Vargas said she asked the janitors to give the county two weeks to negotiate with Nova and they agreed.

"I just want to say thank you to the  janitors that said today that they're gonna give us a chance to work in the next two weeks to make sure that those that have been destituted(sp) are able to get reinstated," Vargas said. "To make sure that we're fighting for a fair contract to make sure that they have what they need so that they can be treated with dignity and respect. You have my commitment."

She got cheers from the workers who said they trusted her and felt like she was one of them.

Meanwhile Martinez has been out of work for two weeks and cannot afford to go to the doctor, she says her lungs still hurt from breathing in the fumes.
But on Tuesday she walked in past her coworkers who were about to go on strike and into the the building she had been cleaning in for 10 years. Only this time to stand behind a podium and speak to the county board of supervisors.

"Good morning I’m Sofia Martinez," she said.

She recounted the abuse but also spoke about why she put up with the mistreatment to form a union. For her 14-year-old foster son. "I am teaching him that he needs to talk and not be afraid and not to fight with words," she said through an interpreter. She said her son is the one who gave her the strength to keep fighting through the abuse at work while trying to organize a union because she’s fought for him too.

"I have to fight for him," she said.

Then Martinez came out of the building where she says she scraped a floor soaked in chemicals for eight hours on her knees, she was met with cheers and the labor chant, "Si se puede."

"My son told me I am his hero," she said through tears.

Corrected: January 25, 2023 at 3:50 PM PST
Editors Note: A previous version of this story misstated Christian Ramirez's name. KPBS regrets the error.