More than a hundred janitors and union supporters blocked an intersection of Capitol Mall on Thursday as they marched and chanted to prevent what they called an erosion of their health care benefits.
"We're fighting for medical coverage. We don't want to lose that," said Araceli Quezda, a mother of three who said she makes $11 an hour cleaning offices in the Arden Arcade area and pays $150 a month for health insurance.
The protest began about 11 a.m. as marchers took over the intersection. At about noon, police arrested seven protesters who sat in the middle of Capitol Mall at Third Street and refused to move. Organizers said the seven, including union leaders and members of local Occupy movements, volunteered to be arrested.
The peaceful protest happened while representatives of the janitors union Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West were negotiating with employers at the Clarion Hotel on 16th Street. Their goal: to renew a contract that expired April 30.
A major sticking point in the negotiations, which continue today, is the quality of health care benefits that union members receive and the amount the janitors and the janitorial companies they work for pay for those benefits, said union negotiator Mark Sharwood.
Sacramento janitors currently pay about $149 a month toward family health care benefits, Sharwood said. That's already a heavy burden, he argued, for a worker who makes $10 or $11 an hour and falls below the federal poverty limit for a family of four.
With health care costs increasing, the employee co-payment could increase to more than $200 a month unless employers agree to pay more, he said. Another possibility is that the quality of benefits that union members receive could be greatly reduced to save money.
Both are unacceptable outcomes, he said. A strike is still a possibility.
"Our goal is to maintain a decent level of benefits and and reduce the co-payment," Sharwood said.
The janitors are employed by more than half a dozen local and national companies to clean offices and government buildings across the Sacramento region. Employers include SBM, a Sacramento-based company that does business nationwide, and Spencer Building Maintenance, a local company that services offices throughout Northern California.
The companies and their lead negotiator either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests in time for this story.
Union spokeswoman Cecille Isidro said Thursday's protest was part of a long struggle to secure living wages and benefits for janitors. Similar protests were held in the Bay Area and Southern California as new contracts were negotiated there in recent weeks, she said.
All were part of the Justice for Janitors movement. Launched in the 1980s by SEIU, it has obtained contracts for thousands of janitors across the country. After a breakthrough in 1999, it now represents 1,300 janitors in Sacramento.
"Justice for Janitors has been two decades in the making," Isidro said.