THE BLOG
04/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cisco Janitors Take to the Streets

As part of a nationwide "Take Back the Economy" protest today, about a hundred members of United Services Workers West marched along several blocks in San Jose, Calif. against lavish corporate excess and specifically against the injustice brought upon janitors at Cisco Systems, a Silicon Valley leader in networking for the Internet.

The nationwide goal of today's protests staged outside banks and corporations in major cities was to "demand more responsible corporate behavior and call on Congress to enact the change that will make it happen - employee free choice and healthcare reform," according to takebacktheeconomy.org.

While the janitors from Cisco Systems support these goals, their more immediate problems involve massive lay-offs as the most recent event in a long-running struggle with the Silicon Valley giant. According to the workers, about 50 percent of Cisco's janitorial staff has been laid off since last November, compared to 10 percent of Cisco's thousands of other employees. Approximately 70 people have lost their jobs, the majority of whom are women.

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"We have to fight back because the job cuts are unfair and unjust," said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877. The current remaining hundred janitors clean up after the same number of employees, essentially doubling their workload while receiving the same pay. Those who are still employed have been given 30-pound vacuum packs to help them finish the work faster, according to Garcia.

Chanting "No peace outside, no respect inside" and "Si se puede," workers filed down East Tasman Dr., where Cisco's tens of buildings line both sides of the street. At one intersection, protestors occupied all the crosswalks, stopping traffic in both directions. Drivers sitting in a long line of cars grew impatient with waiting for the chanting and marching to cease and began honking. Still, when traffic eased up again, some drivers who supported the workers gave honks of approval.

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Among the many purple-clad protestors were laid-off women with their toddlers or babies in strollers, as well as men like Ariel Andon, who was a Cisco employee of eight years and the sole breadwinner of his family. "When a worker is laid off, they only see a worker and not the family the worker has to support," Andon said in Spanish. He was laid off at the end of February when American Building Maintenance took over the management of facility maintenance for Cisco.

"[American Building Maintenance] hasn't respected the workers. I've worked here so long and being treated this way is upsetting," Andon said. Andon has been looking for a job but hasn't found one yet. He still doesn't know what he's going to do in order to support his wife and two sons. "I would like to return to my job. I liked working here. I hope coming out here will change the hearts of those who run the company."

Garcia and other protest leaders stressed the injustice of their disproportionate layoffs with a deep sense of frustration toward Cisco and the company that manages their contracts, American Building Maintenance.

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A recurring theme of today's protest rhetoric involved Obama's stimulus package and its intended effect. Speakers at the rally said that Cisco, among other Silicon Valley corporations, stands in line to receive stimulus money from the federal government, and that such aid should help people return to work, including the workers who were laid off. Garcia's talking points included a "strong national consensus that economic recovery depends on a vibrant working and middle class and that corporations should take a responsible role in supporting the recovery."

"John Chambers has never been a friend of the janitors and has never been a friend of the workers," Garcia said of Cisco's CEO. Regarding last year's ten-day janitorial strike, Garcia said that Chambers was difficult to move. Chambers ranks No. 19 on Forbes' list of top paid CEOs of 2008, earning nearly $55 million in compensation, which includes salary and cash bonuses, vested stock grants, stock gains and the value realized by exercised stock options. Garcia complained that the service union has gone to Cisco a number of times but was always directed to the contractor.

Cisco did issue a statement via Spokesperson Robyn Jenkins-Blum: "Cisco respects and supports the rights of our vendors' employees to fair treatment and their right to voice their concerns. Cisco does not control the employment practices of the thousands of vendors, partners and contractors with whom it works, including the janitorial services company."

The corporation does not "control the employment practices" of the affected workers, because Cisco outsources a large part of their facility management to Jones Lang LaSalle, which then hires American Building Maintenance, or ABM to contract the janitorial staff.

Part of the statement issued by ABM states that "the current economic climate is very challenging for the vast majority of Silicon Valley High Technology companies. As a service provider to Cisco Systems, Inc., Jones Lang LaSalle has worked actively to review any and all expense saving opportunities available, which will help weather the present conditions. As a result, a reduction in service scope was implemented within the ABM Janitorial Contract covering the buildings in the San Jose and Milpitas areas with a corresponding reduction in labor and other direct costs. Fully appropriate staffing will be maintained at these locations to ensure that job requirements are fulfilled at high quality standards."

Eric Berman, a spokesperson for ABM, said that upon taking over management of facility maintenance in late February, ABM started a new contract and made determinations based on the reduction in service scope. That led to corresponding reduction in labor costs, but Berman said that adequate staffing was done to make sure quality service was maintained. Under ABM management, Berman emphasized that workload, working conditions and wages should not be affected.

"ABM takes these kinds of issues really seriously," Berman said. "ABM is absolutely committed to ensuring the workers' safe and suitable working environment." He said he didn't know of any specific communication with SEIU Local 1877, but that ABM "works constantly to stay in communication with employees and organized labor."

Jon Kessler, speaking on behalf of California Assemblyman Paul Fong, attended the rally and addressed the workers by saying, "These are very difficult times. And in difficult times, we have to help people who have less. Taking jobs away is not the right message to send." Kessler, Garcia and other leaders on the streets today recognized the financial difficulty of the major corporations and the need to cut back.

But, Kessler said, "You can't cut budgets on the backs of working people. These are people doing the work that, frankly, other people won't do."

So far, neither Cisco nor ABM can speak to the impetus behind the layoffs, nor the possibility of reinstating some of these jobs.