The ‘Justice for Janitors’ firebrand on the struggle to unionize: ‘I’m not invisible anymore. I’m never going to be.’
Monica Martinez-Vargas knows what it’s like to be invisible.
For much of her career, she worked two shifts in downtown Denver – one cleaning hotel rooms and the other cleaning office buildings.
In the mornings, she’d report to work in her maid’s dress and apron, pushing her housekeeping cart up and down a hotel hallway where she had eight hours to clean 16 rooms regardless of how many clothes were strewn across the floor or how much ketchup needed to be scraped off a lampshade. The goal was to be as quick and inconspicuous as possible stripping beds, changing sheets, replacing towels, vacuuming the carpet, dusting furniture, scrubbing the tub, disinfecting the toilet, scouring the sink and folding the end of each bathroom tissue roll into a crisp, neat triangle – all between the time a businessman left for breakfast at 7:15, say, and returned to his room for a conference call at 8 a.m..
The hotel guests would pass Martinez-Vargas in the hall. Some would nod. Some would ask for “more towels, please, gracias.” And some didn’t seem to notice her at all.
She was even more invisible in the office buildings where she worked at night. Long after white-collar hours, she’d empty trashcans, dust window blinds and sweep crumbs from the cubicles of people for whom she was out of sight and out of mind, as if their offices were tidied somehow by magic.
By the mid-1980s, when Martinez-Vargas had moved to Denver from Mexico by way of California, most small companies that cleaned office buildings had been elbowed out by big janitorial contractors that typically hired Central American workers for minimum wage and no benefits. It was dirty work, literally and figuratively. Most janitors were undocumented immigrants who lived in fear of losing their jobs and being deported, or even noticed, for that matter.
Invisibility had its soul-sucking loneliness. But as a form of survival, it was the safest way to work.
“It was dehumanizing, working alone, in shadows. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t have any connections. That made us vulnerable to the things they did to us, the humiliations. You could see the injustice. But you felt like you couldn’t do anything to stop it,” she says, interpreted from Spanish by Lauren Martens, state council executive director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in which Martinez-Vargas, 69, is still active six years after retiring.
SEIU represents janitors, security officers, health care workers and state employees.
This blog post continues at the Colorado Independent.
This article originally appeared in the Colorado Independent on April 21, 2014, followed by SEIU on April 22, 2o14. Reprinted with permission.
Author: Susan Greene/COLORADO INDEPENDENT