Making a clean sweep of Mt. Pleasant streets

Orlando Argueta, 28, knows all about struggle.

The struggle of a bitter civil war in El Salvador, his move northward from his homeland's coastal plains and his efforts to forge a life as a janitor in Washington.

In the fall and winter, Argueta joined another struggle, this time a five-month-long janitorial strike for better health benefits and 25 cents more an hour.

The strike was partly successful, and yesterday Argueta and 25 other janitors, most of them fellow Salvadorans and all members of Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union, took their brooms and dustpans to the streets of Mount Pleasant, cleaning sidewalks and gutters as their way of saying thanks to their community.

The churches, tenants and homeowners of Mount Pleasant had contributed food, money and toys to the 250 to 300 strikers, many of whom are neighbors.

"My children, wife and I could not have survived without the help of this community," Argueta said through a transla-tor, his red union T-shirt stained with sweat. "I'd like to express my thanks as I can, by cleaning their streets."

Mount Pleasant is one of Washington's most diverse communities, a melange of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, African American and white residents. That accounts for the neighborhood's vibrancy and a certain fractiousness, be-cause the mix of cultures, of long-timers and newcomers, is not effortless.

But for five months, through the coldest seasons, the neighborhood offered sustenance to the workers. Others helped as well, the janitors say, including the many unions that maintain international headquarters in the nation's capital.

The SEIU, whose former president John F. Sweeney ascended recently to president of the AFL-CIO, has made its Justice for Janitors campaign a test of its ability to organize the working class, often immigrant constituencies that once constituted the lifeblood of organized labor.

The recent strike had two aims: to boost health and wage benefits to the federal poverty level and to secure a citywide master contract rather than the current series of individual agreements with private contractors. They also championed new issues, such as time off to attend immigration hearings.

The strike achieved increases in wages and benefits but fell short of a citywide contract. In May, two months after the strike ended, the union's new president, Andrew L. Stern, declared a cease-fire in the campaign, saying that more might be achieved through cooperation than confrontation.

Less than 40 percent of the city's approximately 10,000 janitors are unionized, a far smaller percentage than in many northern cities.

Argueta, a muscular man who stands about 5 feet 8, made $ 6.50 an hour before the strike. During the winter, his wage was reduced to slightly more than $ 5 an hour as his family survived on strike pay. His two children -- his wife, Marle-ny, was pregnant with a third -- faced a barren Christmas.

"We had already forgotten about our plans to go back to El Salvador to visit our family," Argueta said. "And I could not have given my children any presents without the help we received."

Argueta recalls his decision to join the union five years ago as a simple one. He had no benefits or vacation, and the working conditions were terrible. The owners tried to bribe him not to join, he said, but he ignored them.

This spring, Argueta traveled to central California for two weeks to help the United Farm Workers of America organize the laborers in strawberry fields. He wears a red farm workers' emblem on his baseball cap.

"I say, I'm a worker just like you," Argueta said. "The struggle is long."

Washington Post
Publication Date: 
June 15, 1997