Long before #MeToo went viral, an unlikely group of women – night shift janitors – started their own movement to stand up to the extreme sexual harassment they experience on the job.

It hasn’t been easy. They’ve had to battle resistance from within their own ranks – including jeering from male co-workers. They’ve had to demand that the public and lawmakers pay attention to a problem they’ve lived with for years. They’ve had to put their bodies on the line with a hunger strike.

It all started in early 2016, when leaders of the janitors union in California got news that shocked them: The vast majority of their members had either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Like most unions, the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, which represents janitors in California, had been focused on wages and working conditions. Sexual harassment wasn’t a priority until the union leadership watched the “Rape on the Night Shift” documentary.

The film was part of a 2015 collaboration among Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, KQED, FRONTLINE and Univision. The project told the stories of janitors who said their supervisors exploit their power – and the solitude of the night shift – to violently harass them while their employers look the other way.

Since the Rape on the Night Shift investigation, there’s been an effort to find real fixes to an entrenched problem. It’s resulted in policy change, but it’s also activated California’s janitors union and individual workers to combat on-the-job sexual violence in an unprecedented way.

Along the way, the janitors had to overcome a series of hurdles. Here’s how they did it.

The union asked its members about sexual harassment. It was surprised by what it found.

At first, some union leaders didn’t want to take on the issue because it seemed so far afield from what they normally tackle, and they weren’t sure they had the expertise to respond to sexual trauma. But after seeing how severe the problem was, they were motivated to address sexual harassment directly.

They took the rare step of adding a question about sexual harassment to the survey the union sends to its members in preparation for contract negotiations.

The results startled them. About half of the 5,000 workers who responded said they had been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at work, and another quarter had witnessed it. It had become clear to the union that it had to take a more proactive stance.

“This was just alarming. As a union that represents predominantly immigrant janitors and 70 percent of them are women, I just said, ‘We can’t be a janitors union if we don’t do anything about this.’ We have to take on this issue that is rampant in this industry.”
– Alejandra Valles, SEIU-USWW secretary-treasurer
Alejandra Valles is secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West. Credit: FRONTLINE
Credit: Credit: FRONTLINE (PBS)

Then they got the men on board.

In the spring of 2016, the union convened a meeting of hundreds of its members to talk about the new labor contract. There, bargaining committee member Veronica Lagunas announced to the crowd that the union planned to make sexual harassment a priority in its contract negotiations with big employers.

As she spoke, a low roar came from the crowd – some men in the audience were booing her. Loudly.

The union’s president, David Huerta, asked for the microphone and demanded that the men do better.

“I just started giving it to them really hard: ‘This is ridiculous. I cannot believe we’re going to sit here and one, not let our compañera speak, because that’s not what this organization is about. But two, this is a real issue. This is an issue that we have to confront. If the men in this room cannot find it in themselves to fight on this issue, then you have to ask yourself what you’re doing here.’ It was just a straight challenge to them.”
– David Huerta, SEIU-USWW president

That was a turning point for the union. Huerta’s confrontation of the booing men empowered female workers to stand their ground on the issue, and it settled the debate: The union was going to take on sexual harassment.

Several weeks later, the California janitors union signed a new contract with the largest cleaning companies in the state and it included new provisions related to sexual harassment. Now, supervisors would not be allowed to date workers they manage, cleaning companies would have to improve how they conduct sexual harassment investigations, and employers would be required to provide information about a confidential hotline so that workers could seek help if they’ve been harassed.

When Lagunas reported the news to the union’s membership, no one booed this time around. Instead, there were cheers, and some workers threw their fists in the air.

Advocates found a lawmaker to take the issue to Sacramento.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. Credit: FRONTLINE
Credit: Credit: FRONTLINE (PBS)

Soon after watching the “Rape on the Night Shift” documentary, a union official nudged Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a Democrat and former union leader from San Diego, to watch it, too. She said she was outraged by what she saw and decided to seek a legislative response as soon as she could.

“I watched it twice. I think I spent the whole first time watching the documentary saying, ‘Well, of course this happens, but I can’t believe we’ve never thought about this.’ And then I watched it immediately again, to say, ‘What could we do? What can we do about this? This is not acceptable.’ ”
– Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, California assemblywoman

A few months later, Gonzalez Fletcher introduced the Property Services Workers Protection Act, which aimed to curb sexual harassment in the janitorial industry.

The need for the bill was bolstered by a report from UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program, “The Perfect Storm,” which explores the circumstances that make janitors vulnerable to sexual violence at work and cites Rape on the Night Shift.

“A key finding of the report is that the property services industry is structured in a way that isolates workers who are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment, and then creates conditions in which workers are afraid to step forward to report harassment.”
– “The Perfect Storm”

To build support for the bill, Gonzalez Fletcher asked female janitors to testify about the violence they’d experienced at work. The bill’s supporters also found novel ways to raise awareness of the issue when nearly two dozen female legislators wore janitors’ uniforms to the California State Capitol to show their support for women working the night shift.

Janitors demanded public attention.

Protesters hold hands as they block the street outside the California State Capitol during a demonstration in support of the bill aimed at protecting women custodial workers from sexual abuse.Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press Credit: (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

From billboards on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to rallies throughout the state, California’s janitors began making noise about sexual harassment in 2016, long before #MeToo captured the headlines.

At dozens of marches, they held up signs that read, “Ya Basta,” which means “Enough is enough” in Spanish. At a rally in Sacramento, a handful of janitors blocked an intersection and unfurled a banner that read, “End Rape on the Night Shift.”

Credit: Courtesy of the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West Credit: Courtesy of SEIU United Service Workers West

There was a ready-made group of janitors willing to speak out against sexual harassment. The union and The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, an organization that supports non-unionized janitors, had found a way to turn workers into leaders through a new anti-sexual violence program designed for janitors by the East Los Angeles Women’s Center.

The janitors were trained to assist other women who had been sexually harassed at work, and these “promotoras,” or community-based trainers, were charged with sharing what they’d learned with other women.

Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill gave the first group of promotoras a way to put their training into direct action.

Janitors put their bodies on the line.

For a week in the fall of 2016, a group of about a dozen janitors staged a hunger strike on the lawn in front of the California State Capitol. The promotoras and worker advocates had stationed themselves near the statehouse to put pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill.

During the day, they met with supporters, including famed farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta. They read letters they’d written to their attackers. They shared their stories of assault and rape. Each day, as the sun set, they left their posts near the Capitol to sleep at a local church.

On the afternoon of the fourth day of fasting, a member of the governor’s staff walked from the Capitol toward the group of women. As she approached, she told them that the governor wanted them to know that he had just signed the bill. The staff member showed the women a picture of the signed document on her phone. They gathered around her to look at it in disbelief before tearfully collapsing into a group hug.

“We have made history. I feel very proud that all of us opened up this space and we broke that silence. We made history, being that we are poor, we are humble, we come from the bottom. It doesn’t matter what your status is, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin – nobody should harm your body because no means no.”
– Martha Mejia, janitor and hunger striker

Now the law requires anti-sexual harassment training for all janitors, and employers that don’t comply by 2019 can’t do business in California. And because the industry is filled with many black market and fly-by-night companies, it also creates a registry of janitorial companies so bad actors can be held accountable.

The worker rights and anti-sexual violence organizations that pushed for the bill also have come together to start the Ya Basta Coalition. The group is working on creating more effective anti-sexual harassment training for all low-income workers. Some serve on a government advisory committee to implement the bill.

They trained themselves in self-defense.

The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund hosts a self-defense class for janitors. Credit: FRONTLINE
Credit: Credit: FRONTLINE (PBS)

On a Saturday morning last month, nearly a dozen female janitors wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Ya basta” learned to punch, kick and jab an attacker by practicing on imposing plastic dummies.

They had gathered at the union headquarters in Los Angeles to learn how to defend themselves against aggressors as they worked on the night shift.

Through live demonstrations and role play, they were taught how to be fully aware of their environment, how to exude confidence and how to state loudly and unequivocally that they do not want to be propositioned or touched.

This was the first self-defense class for janitors hosted by The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund. But it was just the beginning. Lilia Garcia-Brower, the organization’s executive director, said she plans to take this training to the buildings where the janitors work at night. The hope is that each cleaner will teach these techniques to a co-worker.

“We’re essentially looking to create an army of female janitors who are committed to go out and talk to as many female janitors as possible so that they too can understand that they have the power within them to defend themselves and society is wrong. And as we go one by one, one worker at a time, we’re going to get there to make that shift.”
– Lilia Garcia-Brower, executive director of The Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund

Garcia-Brower said the class isn’t just about throwing a punch – it’s also about teaching women that they have the power to expect a safe workplace.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.

Bernice Yeung can be reached at byeung@revealnews.org. She is the author of the book, “In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers.” Follow her on Twitter: @bmyeung.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.