Theater helps janitor union reach contract

By Otto Pippenger


The Service Employees International Union Local 87 is San Francisco’s janitor’s union who recently reached a contract agreement for some 4,000 janitors that their Vice President Ahmed Abozayd proudly described as “the second best in the country.”


In the midst of these negotiations, which represent years of activism and effort having to mobilize thousands, the union’s leadership and members have been aided by an unexpected weapon- theater.


The 15 members of the union’s theater group are involved in a City College course entitled “Work Tales” in which they work with Bill Shields, instructor for the course and Chair of the Labor and Community Studies Department.


Together they created “Local 87 In The Spotlight: Bread and Prosperity,” a combination of monologues and tableaus performed for audiences around America. Including for union members here in San Francisco, for the United Association for Labor Education annual conference in Detroit in March and in Seattle this June for the Labor and Working Class History Association’s 2017 conference. In the show the janitors tell their stories of coming to America, working, and union activism.


The play has been a tremendous success both out of town and locally. The main local performance was last July at the Mission’s Brava Theater for their fellow union members. All involved agreed the performance was a vital force in galvanizing the membership for their recent contract fight. The success of the play has meant that there will almost certainly be further performances and perhaps whole new productions.


For an organization that survives off dues paid out of hard won paychecks and that engages in costly campaigns of organization and outreach, the fact that the union provides for plane tickets, rental cars, lodging, meals, and full pay for up to fifteen performers to travel to out of town conferences offers some indication of the value the production has demonstrated as a means of energizing the membership and persuading outsiders to support the local.


At an April 24 rehearsal five performers sat with Shields in the union’s auditorium discussing who could make it to Seattle in June 2017. Other than the several Yemeni members who were prevented from attending by the dates coinciding with this year’s Ramadan, all present were eager to repeat what had been their first experience with theater.

“This is the first time we told our stories as leaders,” said performer Ming Dai, “every day we work ten hours – now people know how hard we work, now they believe us.” Esperanza Ruelas was enthused about travelling to Seattle, “this will open new doors and we will learn about other cultures, others will learn about us – I’m very excited and emotional,” she said.


She recalled how impressed the union members were after seeing the show. “They were so impressed, emotionally- mentally, they knew we were in the class but to actually see the presentation, their lives, it touched them,” Ruelas said.


She added, “Some had said ‘it isn’t worth your while and what does it matter, your past life?’ Now they understand. I had the courage to talk about my life and when we go to Seattle, even more people will learn about us.”


(Sub head) Performers tales of struggle and place in the Union


“I was born on a mat in an adobe house with a tiled roof, a dirt floor and a door and window made of mesquite wood. My siblings and I slept on a bed of wood boards that consisted of five or six planks of wood covered with a sheet,” is the beginning of performer Juan Hernandez’s tale. The performer’s origins and lives are as disparate as can be and of numerous backgrounds and nations including China, Yemen and El Salvador.


Some led accomplished careers before being forced to leave such as Dolores Munoz whose performance explains “in college in San Salvador I studied accounting. I then worked for Texas Instruments. We would do work for NASA but because of the war they closed it. 6,000 people were left without work.” Others came fleeing wars and political upheaval. Some were forced to part with their children as they undertook harrowing passages into America.


Once here they took jobs in factories, food trucks, farms or hotels. They spoke of going without food for days, falling into alcoholism, working for weeks without pay and being kept from work by the language barrier. Eventually all came to Local 87 and they speak with gratitude to the union for providing them work with good pay, health insurance, rewards for seniority and effort. Many have worked at the union for decades and own homes, have pensions and children in college or the workforce.


Despite their satisfaction with their union and themselves for forging places in an unfamiliar country, the performance includes a litany of indignities they suffered.


Jose Luis Orozco tells a story of being locked in a stairwell all night at a job before being fired. “It was four o’clock the following day and I was very hungry. At last, as I came out I saw a pear on a desk… and I ate it. The owner of the pear insulted me calling me ‘wetback.’ Since I did not speak English I could not explain. She called the company. They fired me.”


Others describe being fired for becoming sick, bitten by dogs and blamed for it, coworkers dying on the job or disappearing in deportations – with more than a thousand members have been lost to ICE raids.


Sub head: Voices for the future echoes at the end of the play


Many relate their needs for a pride and dignity the work so often denies them. The affirmation of promotion or being voted shop steward, the equality of dignified work, the knowledge that a grievance voiced will be heard.


A constant refrain in each speaker’s story is the paramount significance of their pensions, their health insurance and concrete requests that are eminently possible to grant. The collaboration with the Work Tales project became a way for the Local 87 members to convey firstly their humanity and then their needs through tales of extraordinary suffering whose tellers asked “only to be awarded the dignity we all expect.”


The final portion of the play was their demands for the future. For the prices they have paid it seems impossible to imagine anyone watching to conclude that their demands not be persecuted for the benefit of their children.

The Guardsman