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Meeting of October 31, 2018 - Revamping Workplace Culture to Prevent Harassment

Written Testimony of Alejandra Valles
Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU United Service Workers West (USWW)

I would like to thank the commission for inviting me here today. My name is Alejandra Valles and I am the Secretary Treasurer and the Chief of Staff of SEIU United Service Workers West a union that represents subcontracted security officers, airport workers and over 25,00 janitors throughout the state of California.

For the last three years immigrant women janitors have been breaking their silence and saying YA BASTA to End Rape on the Night Shift by changing the culture of the industry from the bottom up. They are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence at work because they work in isolation in high-rise buildings at night, they don't speak English, because of their immigration and economic status, because the supervisory and reporting structure of foremen, leads, supervisors and contractors is made up of all men in an industry where over 80 percent of the janitors are women. Most of the non-union industry in California still functions in an underground economy that is rampant with wage theft, modern day slavery and fear and intimidation.

There are also cultural and educational barriers. Before starting our YA BASTA campaign, many women janitors did not know the difference between harassment, sexual assault, stalking, and what exactly constituted rape. One woman that I personally worked with was forcefully assaulted with her own broom stick and didn't realize that a crime had been committed against her because as she put it, "In my upbringing that is not considered intercourse, you can't get pregnant so it's treated as if nothing happened."

In 2015, the Frontline documentary Rape on the Night exposed how widespread this problem had become in the janitorial industry. At SEIU-USWW we had to ask ourselves, where these cases were and why weren't women coming to report to the union? We didn't know where to start, but we were given the best piece of advice we have received to date that has become our guiding principle. Look within. The answers are with the women who have lived this, the workers themselves. And that's what we did. We talked to a few rank and file executive board members and made a simple plan to have them screen the documentary with co-workers up and down the state and see what happened. Women who wanted more information were invited to a follow up meeting.

That follow up meeting became our first of many cohorts of Promotoras that was a 6 day training over six weeks of 48 hours of education on sexual violence and trauma in society at large. This was very helpful but we thought, "Wouldn't it be great if we had a model like this specifically for the janitorial industry. We looked and didn't find one, there were many trainings for workplaces but none that dealt specifically with the power dynamics and culture of the janitorial industry and none built and designed by janitors. The janitors told us that with stories of immigrants being detained when reporting crimes at courthouses, immigrant women needed to trust and relate to the trainer. They were more likely to trust immigrant women, like themselves, who had a similar background, than an outside trainer.

So we made a plan with simple but powerful concepts.

  1. Change the Culture of the janitorial industry from the bottom up by altering human behavior on the spot.
  2. Prevention as a goal, liability and compliance as a tactic. Both and, not either or.
  3. Work to create mandates for IN PERSON Sexual Violence and Harassment Training for the janitorial industry through policy, union contracts and our own union as an employer
  4. Build a YA BASTA Coalition and Partner with Organizations who value Worker Centered and Survivor Centered Solutions.
  5. Create Curriculum designed and delivered by janitors, in their language, style and expertise
  6. Build Trust

SEIU USWW has since partnered with the biggest janitorial employers in the country to win contract language that mandates in person training once a year and within the first 60 days of being hired for all their employees and supervisors. The training must include a peer-to-peer component delivered by janitors that meet the state requirements.

SEIU USWW has won a statewide policy that mandates in person training for all employees in the janitorial industry every two years in order to be able to do business in California. The current state requirements state that a peer-to-peer model is an acceptable form of training but is not yet mandated.

SEIU USWW created the YA BASTA Coalition, which is made up of non-profits that focus on legal advocacy, providing services and empowering survivors to identify, prevent, stop and report sexual violence and harassment in the janitorial industry. Finding key allies whose mission and vision on worker and survivor centered solutions aligned with our vision was a key component of our partnership, as there are so many different academic trainings and models that have a legal approach, a traditional HR model that have not only not helped in this industry, but have actually been part of the problem.

SEIU USWW Janitor Promotoras worked with other professionals to help develop their own training tailored specifically to janitors. The content of this training was developed, written, and acted out by the janitors themselves. It captures real examples of common harassment and violence identified by janitors on the night shift including stalking, harassment, and assault. The three examples are followed up with three ways to respond and capture bystanders intervening, stopping, reporting it to HR with peer-coworkers for support, and going to a community organization for help. We are in the process of implementing this training.

SEIU USWW as an employer, who employs over 130 staff, is also following the Janitorial Promotora model and is in the process of working with a staff committee on writing and designing a union staff training that captures the sexual harassment and violence that union organizers face.