Mall Madness as Janitors Try to Unionize

While shoppers at Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey push their feet into gleaming new Nikes, untwist salty soft pretzels, and stride past pasty-white plastic mannequins cloaked in fall fashion, janitors are polishing the floors with unease.

As part of a wider campaign to free mall workers from low wages and unfair working conditions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began organizing janitors employed by the cleaning contractor Service Management Systems (SMS) at Paramus Park. Within weeks, workers say supervisors with SMS threatened to fire anyone who supported the union.

"We work everyday with fear," Christian Valle, a janitor at Permaus Park, told The American Prospect through an interpreter. Valle said he wanted to join the union for "job security" because "sometimes [SMS doesn't] pay us the full hours, they raise their voices at us, and they threaten to fire us so we don't become part of the union."

In July, SEIU filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against SMS, citing interrogation, surveillance, and coercive statements and threats against workers joining the union. SEIU is the nation's largest union, representing more than 225,000 janitors.

The complaint against SMS was just the beginning, as SEIU documented a more systemic practice of intimidation against union-affiliated workers in malls owned by General Growth Properties. In August, SEIU filed six more unfair labor practice charges against cleaning contractors hired by General Growth, and one specifically against the corporation itself. Then in September, SEIU filed 10 more unfair labor practice charges against the company.

Workers allege that at Glendale Galleria in California, one of more than 200 General Growth-owned malls spread throughout 44 states, supervisors of SMS illegally threatened and interrogated employees engaged in union activity.

Several states away, workers at Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree, Colorado, claim that supervisors of the Millard Group, another General Growth cleaning contractor, threatened to reduce wages and forced workers to remove union insignia. SEIU also charges that General Growth officials spied on union representatives.

At the Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, Washington, workers again say General Growth's contractor Millard Group threatened and interrogated union-supporting workers, and even illegally fired one employee for her union activity.

Among the most recent charges, workers allege that General Growth is attempting to undermine union support with promises of increased wages and benefits. The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating all of the claims.

SMS rejected an interview request from The American Prospect, but said in a written statement, "We deny the allegation and are cooperating with the NLRB in its review. It would be entirely inappropriate for us to comment further while the matter is being evaluated." The Millard Group did not comment. And General Growth also refused to be interviewed, but David Keating, director of corporate communications, said the "allegations are false" and that the charges are part of an "orchestrated corporate campaign against General Growth" at the command of SEIU.

SEIU began organizing mall workers in 2006 by focusing on the owner-contractor relationships of Simon Properties Group and Westfield Properties, two of the nation's largest mall owners. Like General Growth, Simon Properties and Westfield both use cleaning contractors, and SEIU urged the companies to commit to hiring contractors who pay good wages, provide health care, and respect workers' rights to unionize.

In December 2006, SEIU announced a partnership with the two mall owners who agreed to only hire responsible contractors, and the union has since moved on to target General Growth. SEIU says that while workers at 20 General Growth-owned malls have recently joined with the union, the corporation has yet to make a similar commitment. Although the company has offered higher wages since the organizing drive began, Manny Pastreich, deputy director of SEIU's property service division, says the gesture is empty without General Growth's recognition of workers' union rights.

"Today General Growth gives people raises, tomorrow they could take them away," said Pastreich. "And if there's no protection for those workers, as soon as the glare of an organizing campaign is gone, General Growth can go back to a low-bid contractor and those workers could lose all those gains."

While the contractors need to be held accountable for their treatment of workers, Pastreich said it's the owners who influence contractors' policies. "If tomorrow General Growth said they wanted to reduce their cleaning costs, they could re-bid their contracts," Pastreich said. "They re-bid the contract and they pick the lowest bids. And the way those companies give the lowest bids is lower wages."

Pastreich said SEIU is working to spread the message that responsible contracting is a smart investment. "We're trying to change from, 'How do I reduce my costs to the minimum level,' to ‘How do I get good value by treating the workers right?'"

With mall owners cashing in on shoppers' buying habits, SEIU maintains that companies should be able to absorb the costs of elevating working conditions. General Growth is valued at $35 billion.

"There's no excuse for malls," Pastriech said. "These companies bring in billions of dollars of revenue. There's no excuse to use low-wage contractors, and there's no excuse for them to not allow workers the right to organize."

Yet working everyday in an environment depicting enormous wealth, Valle, originally from Peru, makes just $11 an hour and does not have health insurance. He said he feels inspired by the unity of his co-workers, but it hasn't stopped his unease and frustration.

"We feel impotent because [SMS doesn't] respect the rights that we have as workers," Valle said.