04/05/2012 07:54 pm ET

Janitors Could Strike in Silicon Valley As Contract Nears End

Thousands of Silicon Valley janitors on Thursday granted their union leaders the power to call a strike if they can't settle on a new contract with their employers in the heart of America's technology corridor.

The 3,000 janitors are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and clean office parks that serve some of the country's largest tech giants, including Apple, Facebook and Oracle. Several hundred janitors marched Thursday in Palo Alto and Century City to draw attention to the negotiations, employing the language of Occupy Wall Street and casting themselves as the "99 percent."

Mark Gomez, a research director with the SEIU, said the union is in the midst of "tough" negotiations with a handful of maintenance companies that have contracts at commercial properties throughout Silicon Valley and elsewhere in Northern California. (The janitors don't work for the tech companies, but for the buildings' maintenance contractors.) Although he wouldn't discuss specifics because the negotiations are ongoing, Gomez said that health care is a primary concern.

The workers, he said, want to make sure they share in the "prosperity" of America's technology sector. Most of the janitors receive around $28,000, while a viable family budget is north of $34,000, according to the California Budget Project, a non-profit that advocates for low- and middle-income earners.

In a memo issued outlining its "strike principles," the union cited its concerns over health care costs, potential layoffs and inadequate staffing at office buildings. "Health care obviously is a tremendous issue, and our wages are below ... a basic living wage for a family," Gomez said. "Without the health care, our members are just one sickness away from economic calamity."

An executive at one of the companies involved in the Silicon Valley negotiations, Mountain View, Calif.-based Service by Medallion, declined to comment by phone Thursday.

The janitors' current contracts expire at the end of April, and if the parties can't come to terms, the SEIU said workers could strike May 1. A strike authorization like the one issued Thursday allows the workers' representatives to use a possible work stoppage as a bargaining chip.

Typically a sign that negotiations are not going well, the authorization comes on the heels of a similar one issued by SEIU janitors in Chicago. More than 13,000 janitors there gave their bargaining committee the go-ahead to call a strike Sunday if it couldn’t settle on a new contract with the Building Owners and Managers Assoc. of Chicago.