More than 500 Los Angeles-area janitors beat drums, rattled cans and chanted slogans outside the Toyota Motors headquarters in Torrance on Thursday, charging that the auto maker pays low wages and engages in unfair labor practices.
The marchers protested Toyota's seven-year relationship with a Beverly Hills janitorial contractor--Advanced Building Maintenance Inc.--that they say provides workers with no health benefits and pays minimum wages. The contractor supplies Toyota with about 50 janitorial employees.
Marchers also decried Toyota and Advanced Building Maintenance for allegedly trying to quash unionization efforts with threats and intimidation. The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the charges, according to spokesmen for the janitors and the contractor.
The hourlong "Justice for Janitors" march was part of a nationwide protest organized by the Service Employees International Union, which has an estimated 200,000 members. Similar demonstrations were staged Thursday in more than 30 cities across the country to pressure large employers to offer better working conditions for janitors.
"We want them to know they (employers like Toyota) are responsible for maintaining substandard conditions in Los Angeles. That will not be tolerated anymore," said Mario Rivas, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, Local 399. "Conditions like these are precisely the kind that were responsible for the recent riots in Los Angeles."
Toyota officials denied they are blocking unionizing efforts, vowing that they will not yield to pressure by the janitors, which they described as "blackmail." Toyota plans to stand by Advanced Maintenance, which has provided "excellent" service to the auto maker, said James R. Olson, vice president of external affairs for Toyota.
George Vallen, chief executive officer for Advanced Maintenance, called the marchers' accusations against his company unfair. While entry-level employees receive minimum wage, most workers get $6 per hour, with some making as much as $9.50 per hour, Vallen said.
Providing free health insurance to his workers would make his business unable to compete in the marketplace, Vallen said. In the last two months, Advanced Maintenance began offering employees a health care package for an additional $108 per month, he said.
Regarding allegations of intimidating employees, Vallen said: "They are something we have to take seriously. It's a way of harassing us. It doesn't cost anything for them to file a charge, but it cost me $300 an hour to defend myself."
Five marchers including one man dressed in a mask and red cape calling himself "Mop Man" briefly met with Toyota officials. They delivered a letter to Yukiyasu Togo, chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. USA, outlining their grievances.
"You can't survive on $4.50 an hour," said a 34-year-old janitorial worker and grandmother who asked not to be identified. The woman said she was recently fired from Advanced Maintenance for her union activities.
Unlike a 1990 "Justice for Janitors" march in Century City in which 40 people were arrested and dozens were injured, Thursday's march was held without major incident. Scores of security guards lined the march route, preventing the protesters from entering the company's main entrance on Western Avenue.